Friday, November 27, 2009

The old swimming pool fairy tale?

Once upon a time there was an Open Air Swimming Pool. People came from many parts of St Neots to use the pool during those hot summer days. This pool was run by the VAT and business rate efficient St Neots Swimming Pool Trust (SNSPT). Things were good. The Town Councillors were the Trustees. The Trust enjoyed three sources of income. These were:

1. A £20k pa grant given by St Neots Town Council (SNTC).
2. Money from Operations - Admission money and catering.
3. £10k pa from land leased to the Eat n' Bowl.

Things were good until those nasty Health and Safety Inspectors condemned the pool as being "unsafe". Following on, those nasty Insurers decided not to insure the pool.
Balking at the cost to refurbish the pool, the Councillors/Trustees decided to destroy the pool and sell the land. They told the St Neots population that the money from the land sale would be used to build a new pool or something!

But who owns the land?

Back in the 2005/06 it was stated: "The pool is owned by the Trust..."
At the 2007 Annual Town Meeting in answer to a question it was stated: "The trust can sell the land by virtue of the powers in the Charity Acts."

Those answers give the definite impression the land is owned by the SNSPT.

But at the meeting of the Town Council 05/12/2007 it was stated: "Since the land is in the legal ownership of the Town Council,..."

So SNTC is the legal owner not the swimming pool trust?!

At the 05/12/2007 Town Council Meeting it was decided to make the land available to the SNSPT to sell. SNTC went to HDC as they had some rights over the land. In the secret part of the HDC Cabinet meeting (31/01/08) it was decided to authorise the disposal of HDC interests in the land. So what was behind this sale of land? Back to the fairy tale.

The knight in shining armour (Huntingdon Regional College) wanted to expand the St Neots Campus. HRC had gone to a Government Agency for money to achieve this aim. The land was needed for the expansion or something and the College was willing to purchase the land.

They even got Hunts DC to agree to this scheme. Everyone was happy. Until...

The Government Agency decided it didn't have the money to lend to HRC. As the knight in shining armour didn't have the money to expand they couldn't buy the land from SNSPT or SNTC. So the SNSPT is back to square one looking for another knight in shining armour to come along and buy this land.
So we are left in the situation where the SNTC owns the land. It has given authority to SNSPT to sell the land and take £1 million. Whilst the SNSPT has the same membership as SNTC it is legally a charity and a separate legal body. The Swimming Pool Trust will decide what it wants to do with the money, not the elected Town Council which owns the land. With the sale of this land SNTC is giving the Swimming Pool Trust roughly £1 million. The Trust is not accountable to anyone apart from the Trustees. This will mean all decisions over the use of this £1 million will be made in secret. This is wrong. SNTC must take these decisions!

I can see no advantage of the Town Council giving £1 million of our money to the Swimming Pool Trust. The Town Council land at Riversmead will need to be given to the Trust. There are advantages to having the SNSPT manage a new facility. A different VAT regime and zero business rates are a couple of advantages. But that is all I can find.

And what of the £10,000 pa SNSPT gets from the Eat n' Bowl lease? As it doesn't own the land why is it getting this money? Why is this money being diverted from the land owner, SNTC, to the Trust?

This looks like a bad deal for the Council Taxpayer. Where is the transparency from the Town Council? Where is the democratic accountability over this project? This scheme is wrong, wrong, wrong! 

All this reminds me of a programme on BBC Choice called "Simply Complicated". The basis of the programme was to invent a daft way of doing something simple. Sounds like St Neots Town Council.

And the moral of this fairy tale is: Give it to our Town Councillors and they make something so simple very complicated.
As an aside I thought I would come up with a contribution for a new outdoor swimming pool. It is outdoor, cost effective and mobile. See below:

1 comment:

Mighty Hunter said...

My understanding is that the swimming pool site and that area on which the Eat'n Bowl is situated were legally transferred in 1974 (as the result of local government changes) as one package from the then owners of the land, forerunners of the District council, to the St Neots Town Council on its creation. However, the deeds of transfer of ownership embodied several legal and binding covenants/codicils on the transfer - the Town Council had to form a Trust, the Board of which was to comprise all the Town councillors, the transferred land had to be placed into the Trust and administered by it, and the land could only be used for 'leisure amenities'. If the Trust subsequently wanted to use or dispose of the land for any other purpose than 'leisure amenities', then ownership of the land would revert to the original owners or any sum generated by a sale of the land would have to be returned to the original owners.

Hence presumably the recent action by the councils to seek legal opinion to try to identify a lawful way of breaking these covenants/codicils, as any transgression of the covenants or codicils would naturally leave the Trustees personally and individually open to a legal challenge and make them financially responsible for any transgression.

Over time the 'leisure amenities' phrase has been used less and less and has occasionally metamorphosed into 'public amenity' and even 'public use', presumably that's how the privately-owned Eat'n Bowl achieved planning consent and how the prospective developers got planning permission to build a new regional college on the old swimming pool site (incidentally with a new access road to the proposed residential development on the playing fields and site of the existing regional college actually running through the leisure amenity land of Priory Park itself!).

So it would be very interesting to have access to the 'in camera' parts of council meeting minutes you referred to, to the legal advice given to the council, and also to the actual deeds of the original transfer to get the real words. I wonder whether an FOI in relation to this historical (35 year-old) deeds transfer document would be successful?