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Are local authorities really doing their best for your community?

Steve Rowley takes a look at the local authorities within West Kent that transform our leisure landscape, and tries to decipher what they’ve promised us, and what they are actually doing about it. Unfortunately the future does not look bright!

Did you know that there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to provide leisure services, but they do so on a discretionary basis because they apparently recognise the immense value of these services and infrastructure to their communities. However, with local elections on the horizon in May 2024, are you really getting the most from your local authority when it comes to leisure?

Paragraph 96 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – which was last updated in December 2023 – states that local authorities should provide the social, recreational, and cultural facilities and services the community needs. Whilst planning policies and decisions should include the retention and development of accessible local services and community facilities, such as sports venues.

However, local authorities are using schools within their areas to bump up their figures, claiming that they do provide enough facilities for the growing number of people wanting to take up recreational activities. This includes private schools who make their grounds and pitches available for hire.

Leisure services within a local authority’s jurisdiction can include facilities like parks, community centres, sports complexes, swimming pools, libraries, and cultural venues. The plans for leisure can vary widely depending on the priorities and resources of each local authority.

Parks and Green Spaces: Many local authorities prioritise the maintenance and improvement of parks and green spaces, recognising their importance for recreational activities, community events, and environmental wellbeing. Plans may include initiatives to enhance biodiversity, create new walking or cycling trails, and provide more recreational facilities.

Sports Facilities: Local authorities often invest in sports facilities such as gyms, sports centres, and playing fields to encourage physical activity and sports participation among its residents. Plans may involve upgrading existing facilities, building new ones in underserved areas, and offering subsidised access for low-income families.

Sports Think Tank
And Sports Think Tank, who are a fully independent think tank dedicated to thorough and insightful thinking around sporting policy in the UK, state on their website that “Local authorities have a central role to play in the provision of community sport and recreation facilities. From the local parks to leisure centres, local councils enable a huge range of leisure activities and sport to happen.”

But, and although common themes that are used by local authorities include promoting physical and mental wellbeing, fostering community cohesion, and enhancing the quality of life for residents, they really aren’t getting the job done.

Looking closer to home
Let’s start with Sevenoaks District Council (SDC) where a lot has been said over the last few years from the collapse of its leisure centre provider (Sencio) to ongoing planning issues for new build stadiums (The Wasps Nest) and small provisions for local sports clubs and their members (£2,500 awarded per annum to the Sports Council).

Unfortunately, nothing has changed, except for Everyone Active who are doing their best to keep the leisure centres in Sevenoaks and Edenbridge afloat, pun intended, SDC maintain that mere ownership of three leisure centres, a golf course, and an indoor bowls facility is their sports strategy for the district. There is no actual plan to do or say anything that will change the sporting landscape in a way to make the area befitting of the wonderful clubs that grace the pitches across the district.

Aging leisure centres
Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council (TMBC) are a little better, however they too maintain that ownership of buildings and grass pitches is also their strategy for the future of sports in the area.

Last year, a report by TMBC councillors said that an aging leisure centre (the Angel Centre) will need to undergo a major refurbishment or be replaced with a new facility. Simply replacing one building for another is not a strategy for the growing number of people wanting to take up recreational activities.

Has the Angel Centre in Tonbridge received its last investment? Will it be rebuilt elsewhere? Questions only local councillors will know the answers to.

Loss of facilities
We then move on to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) who, by the admission of some of their own councillors, really haven’t got a clue when it comes to sport and recreation.

In their Draft Strategic Plan for 2024-2029, the leader of TWBC, Cllr Ben Chapelard, personally states that: “I believe Tunbridge Wells Borough Council is a force for good” with further references to “supporting our urban and rural communities to flourish and fulfil their potential to be caring, healthy, connected and inclusive”.

However, these statements are not really meaningful, as there will be no more County Cricket held at the Nevill Ground for future generations; children have been locked out of changing and storage facilities, where essential equipment is stored; and clubs are left wondering where they are going to play next season due to insufficient planning by the council themselves, with direct reference to Tunbridge Wells Rugby Club and their pitch at St Marks, and Tunbridge Wells Foresters use of the pitches at Bayham.

Kent Cricket’s chief executive Simon Storey said it is unlikely Tunbridge Wells will host any more County Championship matches and “whilst a return to the Nevill Ground in 2024 for men’s first XI is not scheduled, we want to support the excellent work that is going on locally which ensures cricket continues to be a thriving sport.”

This is a direct appreciation of Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club and not that of the council.

The Nevill Ground, the home of Tunbridge Wells Cricket Cub, will not host County cricket for the foreseeable future.

Was it even worth a response?
West Kent Sport & Wellbeing contacted TWBC specifically to ask them about these recent events, however they simply responded with a standard comment: “The Council is committed to the ongoing provision of sport and leisure including pitches. We appreciate the social value attached to sports clubs and try to foster positive relationships with local clubs for the benefit of all”.

So, if they can’t be bothered to address highlighted cases, what hope is there for the wider community?

Following up your concerns
If you have any concerns or queries over what your local authority is doing then please contact them directly in the first instance. Searching for the relevant department or person will give you a head start. Should you not get the answers you are looking for, then we suggest you contact your local MP for further clarification, we have listed these below for you:

Sevenoaks & District Council
Laura Trott MP
laura.trott.mp@parliament.uk

Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council
Tom Tugendhat MP
tom.tugendhat.mp@parliament.uk

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council
Greg Clarke MP
gregclarkmp@parliament.uk

  • If you are part of a sports club or local community group that would like to have your say, then please do get in touch with us via our email address at editorial@oneteammedia.co.uk. We will be more than happy to publish your content.

References

  1. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/65a11af7e8f5ec000f1f8c46/NPPF_December_2023.pdf
  2. sportsthinktank.com/local-government-thinking.html
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