Gosling campaigners quiz GLL managers at public meeting
PUBLISHED: 15:15 08 January 2019 | UPDATED: 16:08 08 January 2019
About 200 people gathered to talk with managers at Gosling Sports Park in Welwyn Garden City last night following the shock announcement to close the sports hall.
Having set up a small presentation room, managers appeared not to have anticipated the level of interest as at least 200 people arrived out of the sports groups, parents and councillors concerned, many of whom are rallying behind campaign group Save Gosling.
In a presentation, which was moved to the bar area, partnership manager Craig Woodward gave a short talk and took questions.
GLL has been meeting with user groups, he said, with the aim of finding new homes or other solutions.
“We believe that the only way we can get through this is to work together,” he said.
Over 22 schools use the space, as well as players of numerous sports such as badminton, squash, archery, fencing, gymnastic, martial arts, volleyball, athletics, and fencing.
Having apologised for the poor communication of the Christmas Eve announcement, Mr Woodward was nonetheless unable to explain why there had been no prior discussion with stakeholders.
He explained how GLL, which took over from Gosling Sports Trust in 2016, took on a significant burden with the building, which was old, came with debts, and is now running at a loss which in the low hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Yet at that time, said Mr Woodward, “we genuinely believed we would be able to turn it around”.
He explained how, aside from GLL’s £3million investment into Gosling’s newer south building, they had also invested in structural care of the walls, fire alarms and security systems, as well as contributing to increased staff pay in line with GLL’s policy.
He acknowledged that the desk is often unstaffed and fees are not always collected.
“There are days where I don’t think we were collecting money,” he said, to laughter from the crowd, who felt that this was an understatement.
“But the money we’re talking about is never going to cover the money we’re losing,” countered Mr Woodward, who said the figures were based on usage estimates.
However, the issue of low fees, low collection, general poor maintenance and a lack of discussion with stakeholders, has led to widespread doubt about how closely GLL has examined the business options.
One questioner said: “It’s really put you in an invidious position that you’ve been told to come here and say this, but they need to let you share the numbers.”
That was followed by cries of “hear, hear”.
Several people at the meeting told the WHT that they were willing to contribute more through measures like higher fees and finding match funding.
“If all of the facility is well managed and well run, there could be a business model. And that’s what I’m not hearing from you,” said badminton player Liz Woodhams.
“I can’t believe there isn’t a way to make the building work,” concluded Liz, to applause.
To this end, stakeholders requested a grace period where they could work with GLL to look more closely at solutions to make the sports hall viable.
In response, a GLL spokesperson said today: “We will continue to listen to public views expressed in this week’s meetings but have no plans to change the closure decision.”
Liberal Democrat county councillor Nigel Quinton, attending as part of the party’s support for Save Gosling, said: “What I would really love to see happen is for GLL to get together with the council ... and work something out.
“We do need GLL management to accept that they’ve made a mistake here.”
Although the council owns the land, it officially has no control over the facilities as they belong to GLL. Despite this, on Monday, the leader of Welwyn Hatfield Council Tony Kingsbury published a statement calling on GLL to reconsider.
Users feel that the loss will have a huge impact, particularly for young people.
Melissa Davey, a leader of Save Gosling, runs DKWay Academy, a leading youth badminton club that will close if no solution comes.
DKWay runs seven national and regional tournaments a year in the facility and attracts international partners to work with the young people.
“Without the academy I dread to think where my son would have ended up,” she said. “It’s been a lifeline.”
DKWay’s coach Stephen Willis said, “It breaks my heart to see,” he said.
He commented that while the recreational and fitness activities in the new building have their place, those who want to learn competitive sports are losing out.
“This is real sport ... the activities that happen in this hall, they’re going to learn something that’s going to be with them for life.”
In a joint statement, Liberal Democrat councillors Sioban Elam, Malcolm Cowan, and Nigel Quinton - all of whom attended and spoke at the meeting - said on December 29: “The heart of the town’s leisure provision is being ripped out without a word or a care.
“It was bad enough that the council has put forward the ski slope and golf range for housing in its flawed Local Plan.”
“Now we learn that the site could reduce to simply the newer, presumably most profitable, parts of the site. It is a bombshell for local residents and the wider sports community.”
GLL will host two further information meetings on Wednesday January 9 at 1pm and Thursday, January 10, at 11am, in the south building.
A petition to save the hall has attracted over 2,800 signatures and can be viewed at: www.change.org/p/petition-to-gll-management-and-welwyn-hatfield-borough-council-whbc