Town regeneration could hang in balance

By Liz HearnshawA PLAN to invest almost half a council's £40 million reserves in providing leisure facilities to rival the best in the region could now hang in the balance after the new administration dubbed the proposals “hasty”.

By Liz Hearnshaw

A PLAN to invest almost half a council's £40 million reserves in providing leisure facilities to rival the best in the region could now hang in the balance after the new administration dubbed the proposals “hasty”.

Now Conservative members sitting on St Edmundsbury Borough Council will re-examine the planned £18.5m spend on leisure centres and a new public building in Bury St Edmunds town centre, while pledging to reduce projected council tax increases next year.

The investment proposal, made by former council leader Ray Nowak in December, included spending about £9m on improving the leisure centres in Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill.

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The remainder of the funding would be dedicated to the entertainments venue planned for the redeveloped Cattle Market site in Bury St Edmunds.

But members of the new Conservative administration have issued words of caution, saying every aspect of the possible investment must be examined in full before a final decision was made.

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Terry Clements, the council's portfolio holder for leisure and sport, said: “Overall, this is a lot of money and I believe this was a decision made in haste.

“We need to look at these things in greater detail and depth, to provide the best we can for the people of St Edmundsbury. We only have one shot at these things.

“We are in competition and our competitors are good. We have to look at why people go to other facilities rather than using our leisure centres.

“Whilst we have got a good footfall of people going through the doors of our leisure centres, I believe they can still be improved. We are out to provide a service and it is going to be a good one.

“But you cannot improve a leisure centre just by throwing money at it - training staff, for example, is also important.”

John Griffiths, who was elected as leader of the council during its annual meeting yesterday, said addressing a huge estimated rise in council tax for the coming year was its first priority.

“We have inherited a projected 25% council tax rise from the previous administration and feel it is unacceptable by definition,” he added.

“We do not have to necessarily look at cuts, but ways of targeting resources, and are keen to maintain leisure and services in the best way.

“We do not want to do anything in a knee-jerk fashion - we want to examine everything and look at things in the longer term, rather than searching for short-term fixes.”

Andrew Varley, portfolio holder for arts and culture, who holds responsibility for the public building on the Cattle Market, echoed his colleague's thoughts.

“We are awaiting a report, due at the end of May, on the financial viability. It has to be proved that what the public building will offer will bring in the customers and not need constant financial subventions,” he said.

“We have got to examine all the financial options. Always keeping value for money in mind, we shall work to make the borough a cultural centre of excellence.”

But new Labour leader, Shelia Wormleighton, who inherited her position after Mr Nowak lost his seat by just two votes in this month's council elections, said refusing to invest could amount to a missed opportunity.

“The clear message is we have got the money and we have got to invest in the town or take the consequences in the long run,” she added.

“The new administration has got to think hard and long and try to look to the future for what may happen if we do not invest in the town.

“We would wish to see these projects continue, bearing in mind the public building met with cross-party support in December.”

During the annual meeting, Mr Griffiths announced his cabinet for the coming year.

Joint deputy leaders Andrew Varley and Jeff Stevens will take responsibility for arts and culture and performance and organisational development respectively, while Jeremy Farthing is the portfolio holder for environment.

Mr Griffiths will oversee economy and development, with Frank Warby covering housing, health and crime, Terry Clements undertaking responsibility for leisure and sport and Sara Mildmay-White overseeing resources.

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