Leith Waterworld: “Bought and sold for A&G gold”

This is the text of the speech given by Leith’s Green councillor, Chas Booth, to the full Council debate on the proposed closure of Leith Waterworld today.

“The question of the disposal of Leith Waterworld was never simply an economic argument. Indeed it would be remiss of councillors on all sides of the chamber not to take a good hard look at the pressing social arguments at the core of this community bid. The fact is Leith is one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in Scotland. Leith has six zones in the most deprived 20% of the Scottish data zones and a third of all children in the area live in poverty. We can rightly speculate on what the effect of withdrawing permanently a facility which brings in over £468,000 a year into the area will have on these statistics. We also know that closing such a facility in an area of deprivation will have a disproportionate effect on the very people leisure pools were introduced to serve in the first place ie small children, families, the disabled and people on low incomes.”

Those words may sound familiar. They have been spoken in this chamber before.

But they are not my words. They are the words of Cllr Richard Lewis, Convenor of Culture and Sport, as he rose to support the Splashback bid for community ownership of Leith Waterworld in January of this year – just four months ago.

Cllr Lewis was right in January, and those words are still true today.

So what has changed since January?

Well, the community bid has progressed. The working group has met 6 times, and has done quite a bit of work. Although it must be acknowledged the lion’s share of the work has been done by Splashback volunteers. We have put out tenders for Design and Engineering Services and for Consultancy Services. With the help of the Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations’ Council we have submitted an application to OSCR to establish a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. We have drawn up a list of possible funders; identified funding criteria and had exploratory talks with many of them. And the community engagement workstream has been particularly active. I pay tribute to all the members of the working group, but in particular the Splashback volunteers who have devoted an enormous amount of their own time, energy and enthusiasm to the process.

And although progress has been frustrating at times, there are very positive signs that with continued commitment from the council a handover of the facility to the community group could be achieved within the timetable set out in January.

So I ask again, what has changed since January?

What has changed since January is that the council has been bought and sold for A&G’s gold.

They have been approached by a commercial property developer with an eye for a profit. But that profit comes at the expense of reneging on a commitment made in January to a community group. Let us just recall what the commitment was:

Council agreed “to support the feasibility phase for the re-opening of Leith Waterworld.” (paragraph a); and that “a final report [would be delivered] at the end of the feasibility phase by no later than the end of 2013.” (paragraph h). That final report has not yet been delivered. We are not at the end of 2013. The feasibility phase has not yet ended. But in deciding to sell the site the council are unilaterally and prematurely ending the feasibility phase. They are pulling the rug out from under the community group.

They are reneging on a commitment less than half way through the process.

What message does this send to other community groups who might want to work co-operatively with the council in future?

It sends a message that we’ll talk to you, we’ll maybe even listen to your proposals, but only until a better offer comes along from a commercial developer. You certainly shouldn’t expect any commitment from us, and you certainly shouldn’t take our word on trust.

Let us be clear.

Soft play does deliver some physical activity benefits, but not the same health benefits as leisure pools. It does not get people swimming, and does not help infants to feel comfortable in water, which is the first step towards encouraging them to get swimming.

If we sell Leith Waterworld, what does it say to communities that not only do they need to plough endless amounts of their own time, energy and money into a project, but they must also be constantly looking over their shoulder to see whether a commercial company is coming to gazump them

If we decide to sell Leith Waterworld, this will be the first failure of the “cooperative council” agenda.

For the “cooperative council” agenda to mean anything, it must mean respect and trust.

But we are destroying that trust if we decide to sell now.

To try to soften the blow by committing £125,000 which would have been spent in the 1st year of Waterworld’s operation to primary age swimming is an attempt to hide their embarrassment at reneging on their commitment to the community.

Their offer of £125,000 cannot and will not make up for the massive loss of amenity that permanent closure of Leith Waterworld will bring

I also have concerns that the scrutiny of the A&G bid has been insufficient – are their claims to be open for 16 hours a day really credible? At their Glasgow site they’re open for 8 hours a day. And will an assumed spend of £10 per child be affordable? It does not seem to me that this is a facility that many of my constituents will be able to afford.

In conclusion, I urge all members to stick to the commitment we made just four months ago to reopen Leith Waterworld as a community facility. Cllr Lewis was right then to support the community bid so wholeheartedly, and his words are still true today. To turn our backs on that commitment would be a betrayal of Splashback; a betrayal of the people of Leith and a betrayal of the thousands of disabled people and young people who could get so much joy from the facility.

We cannot and we must not pull the plug on Leith Waterworld.