Here are the contents of an open letter sent to North Herts Councillors.

From: alan willcocks
Sent: Thursday, December 15, 2005 12:58 PM

Subject: Closure of courts at North Herts Leisure Centre

Dear Councillor,

All users of the 5 remaining squash courts at NHLC Letchworth were invited to a "consultation group meeting" on Monday 12th December at the centre, reference refurbishment of the squash courts. (The 6th court has already been taken as a "spinning room" a while back - without any reference to any users!)

The consultation did not happen; we were told by Mr Steve Crowley of NHDC and Mr Geoff Caine of Stevenage Leisure (the new contractors running the centre) that court usage was only maximised Monday to Friday 18:00 - 20:45 (and less by their obscure figures) - and that to "sustain" the Leisure Centre they will be removing two squash courts to open further Gym facilities and aerobics studios. Arguments to place these in other redundant space in the centre fell on deaf ears, as did the point that the Gym and Aerobic areas were also practically empty throughout the day as most users are at work. Further, the plans - now drawn up and specified and ready to go to tender in January - include refurbishment of the Squash changing rooms and Gym changing rooms; these are situated about 20 metres apart; the idea of combining them was not entertained.

In fact the courts are used quite regularly by a group of lunchtime players as well, but these do not figure in the councils "analysis", the shortfalls of which were highlighted by the fact they showed 0.5 - 0.7 of a court in use between 06:00 and 10:00 when they are closed; Power Pointy Graph is not appropriate for analysis – bar charts of actual court times represent the reality. All 6 courts were used to the full during peak periods when they were previously available, so it shows the futility of this sort of graphical analysis. It also does not show the number of people who try to book courts at their preferred time and date of playing, only to be disappointed as they are already fully booked for peak times 7 days in advance.

This refurbishment is budgeted at £1.5million!!!! NO leisure centre members have been consulted about it, no market research done to see who wants these proposed extended facilities, and it has become obvious that this capital investment must have been known to the contractors who tendered March 2005 to run the place, although none of the users knew of it, nor the Centre Manager! Surely the Leisure Centre is about Sport for All, not to try to compete with Canons and David Lloyd in providing big Power Gym areas?

Stevenage Leisure, the successful tenderer, is a "not for profit organisation", competing against the likes of Parkwood (Glendale) who previously held the contract - and kept their shareholders happy; if they hadn't been making a profit, they wouldn't have re-bid. So where has all this extra money gone gleaned by these "not for profit" people, where is it being invested, or did they bid so cheaply that the NHDC are reaping the benefit and not passing it on to the users? Certainly cleaning and maintenance have deteriorated since Stevenage Leisure took over, the bar is frequently closed – and when open the draught beers are undrinkable due to improper care – two out of three pumps unavailable for the Squash Christmas Party 8th December.

Ian Knighton, the councillor at NHDC holding the Leisure Folio says he asked for notices to be issued for the “consultation” but does not answer as to why it was a dictation, cannot offer why no customers knew of the £1.5m uplift, and has no comment on the fact that Stevenage Leisure did exactly the same thing at Stevenage Leisure Centre, ending a very strong League of squash players there too; courts closed, leagues collapsed through lack of available slots, squash players moved away – many to NHLC – and the company were able to say “told you it was a dying sport”. This is what is called a self – fulfilling prophecy!

I have run the Squash Leagues, supported by many colleagues at Letchworth for 10 years now, with - and on behalf of - the various management teams through that period. We have 10 divisions of 8 players currently, and this is increasing with new applicants and the return of some injured players on our books - total 90 in all on our e mail list. Most players book courts twice a week, weekday evenings, to play a League game and a friendly, by their own arrangements. Almost as many "casual" players use the centre, interleaving their bookings, all done on a first come, first served basis. With a reduction to just 3 courts, each with 4 prime time weekday booking periods, this offers just 60 slots per week, so 90 players cannot play twice a week......and this takes no account of the casual players.

There are no other centres in the locality which can accommodate this strength of League; at a previous closure of the NHLC for works, we took it upon ourselves, with help from Mel Davis, the local NHLC Manger, to arrange to de-camp to Hitchin College, interloping on their 4 poor quality, low ceiling courts - floors so slippery they were dangerous; we lost about 25 players during that time, and it took us 4 months back at NHLC to get our Leagues back up to strength, organising Club Nights and Introductory Games for newcomers and members alike. Players come to us from Royston and its necklace villages (no squash in their new leisure centre!), and Biggleswade, Comberton and beyond - due to ease of access, ease of booking, generally good courts (although now in need of some work) and competitive play at all levels - as well as a great social atmosphere. All this will be lost as these Leagues fold.

The Squash at NHLC is far more popular than figures portray; each court is only ever used by two people at a time, and there is a limit to what they can be realistically expected to pay – hence it will always appear that the space can be better utilised on a £ per sq ft basis. However – the entire building was provided free of charge to the Council by the Letchworth Heritage Foundation originally, so there is no capital repayment, only running costs. As the areas are only cleaned once a day, for about an hour, and the heaters haven’t worked for years, only the lights are a cost – and this is exaggerated by failure to maintain the coin slot system to turn them on and off!! So “Rates” - Council Tax - is the only cost issue, and as they are the owners of the site, this is merely a paper transaction.

So the entire scheme comes back to a few wrongly informed Councillors, advised by council staff with inaccurate and incomplete figures, making secret decisions with their contractors to the detriment of the very people whose interests they are all elected and paid to represent.

Upgrading 5 courts – about £20k at the most; at stake £1.5million of Council Tax payers money – and from the local press last year, the community would much prefer to see this sort of sum spent on their Outdoor Swimming Pool on Letchworth Common – but like us Squash Players, the community will not be consulted – it will be told!

Please do all within your power to support us in stopping this scheme in its tracks, not only to support Squash in North Herts, but to see this massive £1.5 million budget spent as the populace would wish, not the Contractors and Council Officers. Let us a least get back to PROPER CONSULTATION, open examinations of options and costs, and TWO WAY DISCUSSION. That is what Open Government and Democracy is supposed to mean.

Thank You in anticipation of your support.

Alan Willcocks
and Squash players of North Herts Leisure Centre