Leisure Facilities in our Area: Northfield Deserves Better than Second Best
Northfield deserves a quality leisure centre in which local people – young and old – can swim, take part in sports and keep fit. People have been telling me this for years. The issue has always been where such a leisure centre should be, how accessible it is and how it can be funded.
Unfortunately the story for the past decade has been of short term thinking by Birmingham Council, following by no thinking at all for eight years, followed by attempts to face up to issues that have become urgent because they were not faced up to before.
And even those attempts are now being caught up in some of the most shallow party politicking I have seen in all my years as an MP. It is party politicking designed to win votes by misleading and scaring local people, rather than being straight with them. And in some cases it is party politicking by the same people who themselves should have faced up to the issues years ago.
Back in 2003, Birmingham Council knew that the pool at Northfield Swimming Baths was falling to bits. It was an old pool which was, quite simply, coming to the end of its life. The choice for the Council then was whether to do a short term, 10-15 year refurbishment, or to try to build a new pool and leisure centre to serve the area. I supported the second option. I thought Northfield should not have to put up with second best.
However the likely cost of a new pool and leisure centre meant the Council decided on refurbishment. It was also a decision taken in the full knowledge that the issue would come back again in 10 to 15 years’ time. The Council knew they had bought themselves time but no more than that. They had the responsibility of using the time they had to plan for the long term.
FACING DIFFICULT DECISIONS
We are now at the point where those decisions have to be taken and there are a lot of questions to answer.
Should the Council once again spend money on a temporary refurbishment, and be back here again in a few years? Or should they grasp the nettle and go for a new leisure centre? If the latter, where should it be?
Is the current Northfield pool site the best option? It’s much loved and it’s in a convenient place for many people, being so close to the main Northfield shopping area. But is the existing site big enough or suitable for a 21st century leisure centre? Maybe not.
Even if it would be big enough, what about the fact that local people would have to lose their existing pool for the 12 months or more it would take to knock down the current pool and build a new one?
So should the Council instead look for a new pool to be built elsewhere in Northfield, keeping the old pool open for local people until the new one is open?
And if a new leisure centre is to be built at another location in the area, where should that be?
These are difficult and complex issues. They are even more complex now than they would have been a few years ago. Government cuts mean Birmingham today has little option but to invite bids from outside run the service within a framework determined by the Council. The Council has some money to invest in refurbishment or rebuilding leisure facilities in Northfield and elsewhere, but it’s not enough. It will take outside investment too. The Council has to decide how it can secure that investment, whilst still keeping facilities accessible and affordable for local people.
And if a new pool is built elsewhere in the Northfield area, there is still the question of what happens to the current site. What future uses could contribute to, rather than detract from, the vitality of the Northfield High Street area and the businesses which rely on it? The frontage of the exiting Northfield Baths is also part of our area’s heritage. Could this – and at least part of the existing building – be retained for alternative community uses?
SEPARATING FACT FROM FICTION AND LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
It is right that local people should be able to make their views known on these questions. That is why Labour’s new chair of the Council’s Northfield District Committee, Brett O’Reilly, is holding a public consultation on the future of Northfield’s Leisure Facilities on 30 July 2014 at the Factory Youth Centre in Longbridge. It is why I, as the local MP, want to hear your views too. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to give me your views.
It is also why recent comments by the Conservatives are doing local people a disservice. They have already been found out to be misleading people about what is going on, even doctoring reports of what others have said to score political points. You might have hoped they would have learnt their lesson after being exposed doing this. Sadly that has not been the case. In recent weeks they have been at it again, as their recent leaflets and media comments demonstrate.
The trouble is that, as well as offering no practical solutions to the problems of today, the Conservatives themselves have some serious questions to answer. The Conservatives controlled the Council between 2004 and 2012 and a Northfield Tory Councillor was responsible for Council finance for part of that time. For the whole time they controlled the Council, the Conservatives knew that Northfield would need a replacement or further refurbishment of Northfield pool by now, but for their entire eight years in office they made no plans or preparations to do either. Instead, their priority was to build a brand new pool in Harborne.
Nothing less than a new pool was good enough for Harborne, but the Conservatives still seem to think “make do and mend” is good enough for people in Northfield. And they still want more delay. Maybe they think that the confusion that all causes will win them votes. But that is hardly the point.
Decisions may be difficult but that doesn’t mean they should be ducked. People in Northfield deserve better than second best.