As district councillor for the ward that includes the old Hermitage Leisure Centre I’ve been thinking a lot about what should happen now that it has been closed down.
It’s costing the district council a lot of money for the building to stand empty so we need to move quickly to decide its future – we’ve been considering the options for long enough.
I know that the guys at Coalville CAN have worked very hard to think of alternative uses for the building such as a parkour centre, a community café or converting parts of the building to flats, but after a great deal of thought I don’t think it’s the right option for Whitwick, let me explain why.
I worry that a parkour centre will attract anti-social behaviour, when the centre closes it won’t prevent people from congregating outside.
The building is an old leisure centre, I’m not at all convinced converting bits of it into flats will deliver decent homes.
If the district council were to allow the building back into public use it would be their responsibility to ensure it is safe, energy efficient, and that necessary plant is decommissioned; that could easily cost a couple of million pounds (and that is on top of the £24 million spent building our brand-new leisure centre up the road).
And, sadly, a project like the one Coalville CAN is proposing could only realistically be provided if it was underwritten with taxpayer money. Whilst the potential benefits are significant so are financially the potential risks of failure, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to burden local taxpayers with them.
But the truth is simpler than that. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and you can’t beautify an old leisure centre that is no longer fit for purpose.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to demolish the old Hermitage Leisure Centre, and do it sooner rather than later.
So what do we do with the site once it has been cleared?
I want to make sure that we keep the playing fields, astroturf and lake for local people. I also want to make sure we keep car parking for the residents who have relied upon it for so long. We could perhaps even improve them?
Obviously that means the council would need to generate some funds and we could do that by using the footprint – and only the footprint – of the old leisure centre for a small amount of housing.
Now I know some will say ‘we knew it, more housing’ but hear me out!
We know there’s a real shortage of smaller homes for older people and the footprint of the old leisure centre is in the perfect spot for access to the businesses in Whitwick Market Place and Silver Street. We could build a court of sheltered housing to ensure local people can stay local as they grow older.
And the beauty is we could kill two birds with one stone. If we’re building much needed socially rented homes for older people on the footprint of the old leisure centre that could be paid for through the council’s housing revenue account which in turn would generate a capital receipt for improvements to the public areas elsewhere on the site.
It’s a big win! We keep and improve our much-valued public assets and build much needed homes for older people (which more often than not means freeing up the larger homes that they vacate for families).
I’m sure not everyone will agree with me, but this is the case I’m going to be making at council in the coming weeks and months.
Stuart Gillard is District Councillor for the Hermitage ward
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