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The Thin End of the Wedge - What is Happening to Wincanton Sports Centre?

Tuesday 20 September 2011, 09:52
By Clive Rogers

[EDITOR:] This article was published briefly in August but then temporarily removed to give the Sports Centre Manager an opportunity to respond. We appreciate all comments on this article and welcome feedback from Sports Centre officials if they wish to add their response.

Wincanton Sports Centre statueThere are about to be a number of significant changes to the Wincanton Community Sports Centre, minor in themselves, but which could ultimately see its closure. These are brought about by a series of corrosive measures which take no account of the wishes of the community of Wincanton, let alone serve them.

Opening hours are to be shortened and staffing levels cut, and inevitably service levels too. Entrance charges for some, but not all, items will be increased, and of importance to families, free swimming for their five year olds and under is to be reduced to those under four, and all this from an "emergency" trustees meeting on 15th June 2011.

We are then about to see a number of 'minor' changes in which the centre operates, but when the background to them becomes clearer then the centre ceases to be a "community" asset, and more of a bureaucratic creature of convenience, the thin end of the wedge.

The centre opened ten years ago, after two decades of tenacious lobbying and fundraising by local people. They eventually saw their great dream turn into reality, and on 10th May 2001 the Wincanton Community Sports Centre opened.

Alice is a current member of staffIt is a centre of excellence with its 25 metre, four lane pool, its gym, studio, and sports hall, and together with a loyal and dedicated staff, some of whom have been there from the very start, it is all probably far more than ever could have been wished for back in those early days when it was just a dream. It is the envy of many much larger communities across the country.

Wincanton Community Sports Centre is operated as a charitable trust, (you can examine, as far as it goes, the Centre's affairs on the Charity Commissions web site - www.charity-commission.gov.uk), and there you might expect things to be properly regulated, but not completely so. The Trust was established by Somerset County Council to run the Centre, but it carefully appointed the initial trustees, retired councillors from outside the Wincanton area, to take on the responsibility. This gives the local authority, South Somerset District Council, the ability to control what happens, or more accurately, what doesn't happen.

Whatever the Centre achieves that is perceived to be a success, then the Council, through its employed bureaucracy, takes the credit, but when things go wrong, they are nowhere to be found and the blame is laid firmly at the door of the trustees, or - more likely - the staff. As with anything with any tenuous connection to local authorities you can never find out exactly who is responsible.

Andrew is a current member of staffThere have been two catastrophic episodes in the centre's relatively short life and both closed the swimming pool for months. Each cost the South Somerset tax payers huge sums of money to correct. Errors were made that should have been avoided had adequate quality control checks on the pool construction been properly carried out. Doubtless we will be told that such checks were in place, so we are left wondering why the problems occurred. We are about to embark on a third.

It has recently been "discovered" that a £28,000 budgeting omission regarding the purchase of vending machine stock has been "found" within a budget prepared during the last quarter of the last financial year. That was approved by the trustees, and by implication, the SSDC, in March. The knee-jerk reaction to correct this is to reduce current staffing levels, working hours and most importantly to the community, the opening hours.

This will not correct the actual deficit as it does not address the basic conundrum which is to achieve greater utilisation of the Centre so that more revenue, and therefore profits are generated to counteract the error in the first place.

It is almost like having an aircraft with not enough passengers to make the flight profitable, so you cut off the tail-plane (as you don't actually see it from inside) to trim the cost of operating it. The problem then is that the aircraft cannot fly. The answer to that is exactly the same as with our community sports centre. Instead of picking bits and pieces off of the whole model, there needs to be a concerted approach to sales and marketing to get additional customers. As with aircraft, it is no use whatever chopping bits out, when what is required is more customers, more utilisation, and more profit.

That is down to the Trustees. Such trustees need to be highly experienced, commercially pro-active, non-bureaucratic, single-minded individuals, who need to be able to decide upon a strategy for profit. To date, they have not produced one single item during the ten years of existence that fits the bill. Why? Because they are controlled by the bureaucrats that ensured their appointment. Those appointments cannot be challenged, and there is no mechanism for the tax payer and or resident, or the donor to the charity, (the member or subscriber) to vote them out or have them replaced with people who can make an effective management team.

Why not? It is simple. The local authority bureaucrats don't want a success story, financial or otherwise, as that threatens their very existence, and then they will have no justification to claim that they need to be in their jobs to make sure that it is a success story. Now where have we heard that before?

Claire indulging in some crazy dance movesLook again at the Charity Commission's web-site for our sports centre. It shows trading to raise funds = zero. Management investment - guess what? Yet another zero. If you look at the excellent article in the Wincanton Window by Nick Colbert under "Councils" you will find that the amount spent on the bureaucratic self aggrandisement in South Somerset amounts to some £32 million, so what exactly is the problem with diverting some of that money to where it belongs in the tax payer's Wincanton Community Sports Centre?

During the ten years that the Community Sports Centre has existed there have been appointed some half a dozen managers of the centre, and they have lasted an average of eighteen months, and then left, presumably disillusioned. Who appointed them? The self same "trustees" appointed by the Council mandarins.

Members of the Sports Centre, that is to say the tax payers of Wincanton and the surrounding area, are donors to the charity itself, and as such have a right in law to have their money used as they believe it should be. Their voice is unheeded and the current system for appointing trustees must change before another catastrophe takes place and the Wincanton Community Sports Centre closes.

Put simply, and before the district council mandarins wreck the entire enterprise, there has to be a board of trustees elected, and if necessary re-elected after a period of time has elapsed, by those people who have contributed to the charity, that is to say the members of the centre and the local tax payers, and not the gold plated pension, fat cat council employees whose interests appear to be placed first.

Beware. "The thin end of the wedge" thickens and if this indefensible state of affairs is not corrected the Wincanton Community Sports Centre will close, it is inevitable. You have been warned.

Clive Rogers M inst TT

This article was published briefly in August and then temporarily removed to give the Sports Centre manager an opportunity to respond to it if they wished. We appreciate all comments on this article and welcome feedback from Sports Centre officials if they wish to add their response.



Comments

Victor Meldrew
Posts: 1
Comment
Re: The Thin End of the Wedge - What is Happening to Wincanton Sports Centre?
Reply #1 on : Tue September 20, 2011, 19:46:44
Very interesting to see just who the Trustees are, that unacountable, beaurocratic, ship of fools SSDC. I remember when it was decided that Wincanton would finally get its swimming pool, apart from the one King Arthurs once had/sports centre, it HAD to be put where it is now because the County Council would not support it finacialy if it went elswhere in the Town. The obvious place to me was at the Sports Ground.The the Town Council was supporting it through the Precept, with SSDC supporting the Sports Ground, guess who got the best part of THAT deal! Well that finally was changed round, and now look what happened. I have commented elswhere that SSDC employees are unacountable to anyone, least of all to the ELECTED Councillors. But some of those ................ In addition to asking where the funding and/or business plan(?) has failed, ask where all the money from selling the old Council housing stock,£21m and that raised from selling Yarlington, £???m has gone. An intelligent guess would be that it has gone to support projects in Yeovil Chard, Crewkerne & Ilminster at the expense of Area East, Wincanton, Castle Cary & Bruton. It is time SSDC were brought to book and made to account. The CE is subject to proceedings, so where does the rot stop?
Steve Joel 2011
Posts: 1
Comment
Wincanton Sports Centre - A different perspective
Reply #2 on : Wed September 21, 2011, 16:35:50
I would like to provide my thoughts and some facts for Wincanton Window readers.

Wincanton Community Sports Centre was realised at a cost of less than £700,000 to the South Somerset taxpayer, achieved through great local collaboration, and delivered great value for money.

It was supported by South Somerset District Council, but the centre is managed by a charitable trust, the most cost efficient management model available for a facility of this type, which is independent from the District Council, consisting of a dedicated board of trustees appointed from the local community.

As a consequence of the fiscal benefits uniquely available to charities, including VAT and Business Rate savings, this approach has secured savings in excess of £1 million to the taxpayer throughout the last ten years.

The trustees understand the business, the local demographics, markets and most importantly the core charitable purpose that underpins the provision of their activities.

They give up their time to make the provision of these services in Wincanton possible – services that have attracted over 2.5 million swimming, fitness, dance and sporting visits since opening from local customers.

The trustees are highly experienced, commercially pro-active, non-bureaucratic, single minded, and have and will continue to decide upon the strategy to deliver their charitable and community objectives.

Together with their management team and staff, they continue to respond well to the financial challenges they face and seek new opportunities, in a way that any other private, public or social operator in this sector would do.

Everyone will appreciate that this will require changes to be made from time to time, however, I am confident that the trustees will always ensure that those changes are carefully evaluated and will not result in the demise of this important and well-supported facility.

They will I am sure also continue to expand services to further increase use of the centre despite tough financial times affecting businesses, charities and the users of the centre.

Far from being controlling local authority bureaucrats, the District Council continues to support and enable the Charity to successfully deliver, providing professional support to assist as and when it may deliver added public value.

Whilst I appreciate that many people will have different views of the services the centre provides and how it provides them, I would encourage people to provide feedback, comments and suggestions direct to the staff and trustees. I am confident they will consider and respond to all contributions.

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