Wisbech Bowls Club

Wisbech Bowls Club

There are some problems with the current situation regarding Wisbech Bowls Club and the recent newspaper article in the Wisbech Standard highlights them.

For me, what this boils down to is what a Council-run Leisure Centre is actually for, and how the decision was taken that got us to where we are.

Now if a Council-run Leisure centre is exactly the same as any other private Leisure Centre, to deliver sports and leisure services that will make money and be popular, then its quite hard to argue against the current plan to remove the Bowls’ Hall from the club that has used it successfully.  After all, the claim is that this change will not only get an additional half-million pounds in investment, but will save the Council £140,000.  There are about 140 members of the Bowls’ Club, I am told, so the cost of “keeping” the Bowls Club is £1000 a head.  In a time of budget difficulties, that is not easy to ignore.

The problem is, I don’t think that a council Leisure Centre DOES have the same role as a private one.

After all – if you want to do exercise, spinning or whatever else the new investment is buying, there are already private institutions in the Town where these sort of activities are available.  Is it really the Council’s job to compete with private enterprise in this way?

I think that the job of a Council Leisure Centre is to fill in the gaps.  To provide exercise and activity for people whose needs are not likely to be met by the private sector.  If you are looking at running a club purely on a financial basis then you’d probably do away with the swimming club too.  Probably also the swimming pool, actually.  But we wouldn’t want to do those things because we value a local place for our kids to learn to swim and a pool for everybody to enjoy.  We see a public good which has value above and beyond the immediate commercial gains of a private institution.

Now Bowls is a sport for all ages, but I don’t think its a great secret that the demographic that is more common in the sport is older than the one which indulges in some other sports and activities.  The place offers light exercise for people who might not otherwise get enough light exercise, a place to meet friends and have fun.  Given the regular importance placed on keeping fit and combating loneliness and social isolation, the hugely successful bowls club is an example of a service whose value is far greater than the price tag might suggest.  Things like the gym are a useful way to subsidise the less profitable activities and I support them fully, but should not become the sole focus.

When the Council makes the claim that it will “ensure the club survive” that’s all well and good.  But if they are taking away their hall, what does that promise actually mean?  To the best of my knowledge there isn’t another local indoor bowl’s facility anywhere nearby, so what’s the plan?  Try and relocate them to some distant town?  Build a new Bowls Hall (and thereby make the current “savings” pointless?)  No answers are given, leaving us all a little unsure what is meant.

And how did it come to this anyway?

When the Council broadly supported investigating if a private firm could run a leisure centre more cost-effectively for us, nobody ever said “but it’ll mean closing the Bowls Club.”  Of course they didn’t, because on that basis it would never have been supported.  This stuff was all discussed around the same time as the Bowls’ Club was saved previously, so there would have been an enormous kickback against such a proposal.

Some of the other comments in the newspaper article are sad to see, also.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that you can’t trust what you read in the press and some of this story could be misleading or wrong.  But on the subject alone I was sorry to see the silly comment about how “it’s always Wisbech Wisbech Wisbech.”  This kind of attempt to pit one town against another is childish game-playing and should be avoided.  All Councillors do their best to highlight the areas they were elected to represent.  Why wouldn’t we?  Of course it is not always “Wisbech Wisbech Wisbech.”  Which is why other towns and villages have had investment, new facilities and endless discussion about the streetlights and other local issues.  To try and deflect from a damaging policy decision by making the discussion parochial is unhelpful and incorrect.  This is not something new that Wisbech seeks to secure from FDC funds, but something existing and valuable that FDC’s decision will remove from the town.  We are not all different countries, we are close Fenland neighbours and friends.  This is not a competition.  A little perspective?

I fully accept we have to save money and I fully accept that we all have a responsibility to help meet our difficult budget demands.  But if this matter had been through the political groups and through the council as a whole, and the issues of the Bowls Club discussed earlier, it may have been possible to seek a different “deal” with the private provider.  Those who have made the decision will of course say: “We investigated all avenues” or “this is the best deal we could get.”  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  But since the rest of us weren’t involved, we can’t ever know, can we?

Last I heard the deal had not been signed.  My advice would be to go back to Freedom Leisure and say: “Let’s have another look at this and see what we can do” and then involve the whole Council and all the elected Councillors in the discussion.  This is how you avoid a massive and unnecessary ding-dong with a lot of finger-pointing and wagging.  It’s not too late to have a rethink, even at the 11th hour.