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March 26, 2014

Councils must walk the talk

There is something approaching a consensus that the relationship between councils and communities needs to be fundamentally reimagined. Whether that‘s been driven by Christie’s public service reform agenda or the democratic deficit that has so weakened local democracy, there’s always much talk of the need for ‘culture change’ and for a ‘shift in the mind sets’ that determine a council’s actions. But fine words and good intentions count for little if nothing changes on the ground. The case of Midlothian Council’s intransigence over a community asset is a case in point.


Evening News, Edinburgh

COMMUNITY campaigners bidding to take over a disused leisure centre are to battle on despite a recommendation from council officials that the building should be demolished.

Residents succeeded in stopping a previous move to bulldoze Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre and went on to form the Bonnyrigg Centre Trust, which drew up a business plan to reopen the premises as a community hub and play centre.

A report to Midlothian Council, due to be debated next week, recommends the community bid for the building should be rejected.

But the trust has appealed to councillors to take another look at the case for saving the centre, which lies in King George V Park, near the centre of the town.

In a last-minute plea, the campaigners said: “We are asking for the opportunity to be allowed to succeed and sincerely hope that councillors will be prepared to use their position to make this possible for the dedicated and self-motivated community of Bonnyrigg.”

The leisure centre was closed by the council last year following the opening of the Lasswade High School Centre, which has extensive facilities open to the community.

Lothian Green MSP Alison Johnstone tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament backing the campaign to keep the centre and delay demolition plans.

The trust proposes reopening the centre in two phases. The first would include a soft play/party venue with cafe, community offices, a youth club and a skate park.

Phase two would see transformation of the former pool into a large indoor creative play centre. A bike repair centre is also included in the proposals.

But a panel appointed by the council to assess the bid said it had concerns about the financing of the project, noting it would be heavily reliant on grant funding. The panel also described income projections as “over-optimistic”.

Architect Douglas Strachan, who has worked with the community to produce drawings for the proposed reopened centre, said the points made in the council report were not unfair.

But he added: “It’s not possible to have funding in place without agreement from the council [that] we are going to get the building.

“Councils elsewhere, faced with a similar situation, have taken a very different attitude. The community has come together to try to make this work. Instead of judging us, the council could have said ‘Let’s see what we can do here’.

“I’m hoping the spirit of what we are doing will mean they look at the report and come to a different conclusion.

“They have recognised we are trying to address people’s needs. If they take that as their mandate, they could get us in and say ‘Let’s make this happen’.”

Midlothian Council chief executive Kenneth Lawrie has also recommended rejection of a second bid for the leisure centre from Midlothian Fitness Academy and is urging demolition of the building as soon as is practical.