The Stirling Centre leisure complex in Rochester Maidstone Road today began its part of a review of all of Medway's leisure services via a public consultation meeting—the first of two, with the second to be held on the evening of the 13th September—both at the Centre itself.
The question being put is: should the Centre's weekday open hours be reduced to just evenings, or perhaps evenings and one or two daytimes per week? Weekend opening times are not being reviewed.
The event was very well attended, though the gathering did include a number of Labour councillors, activists and other known party supporters, plus a Union representative acting in his typically nasty way. All predictable stuff...
Also present were Rochester South and Horsted ward Councillors Sylvia Griffin and John Ward, plus the chairman of the council's Community Services Scrutiny Committee (which has responsibility for leisure) Cllr Jane Etheridge. Sylvia is also the vice-chairman of that committee.
So, why is this question being considered? It is an unavoidable consequence of the severe underfunding of Medway Council, so all areas of the council's activities that are not required by law, or are required only in limited respects, are having to be trimmed. This way, by sharing the burden over a number of items/places, the impact on many of them can be reduced. For example, several years ago the Stirling Centre was being clonsidered for complete closure. That is not on the cards this time.
Of course, it shouldn't have been necessary to review the opening hours at all; but when central government continues to place additional statutory burdens upon councils and then in many cases (most definitely including Medway!) reduces funding by millions of pounds per year, something has to give.
In the current year, an additional £5 million or so was taken off the amount coming to Medway, partly a so-called floor damping device to effectively steal millions of pounds from Medway residents, and the rest was a rather graphically-named clawback of nearly a million pounds more.
Despite campaigns on behalf of Medway by the Conservative Administration (including several meetings with Government Ministers, and even a protest taken to 10 Downing Street!) over recent years, there has been no improvement in the situation. Indeed, it has clearly worsened, and despite all the economies that have been introduced, the camel's back has now finally been broken.
Of course, the first instinct of anyone hearing this news is to blame the council. Well, it is not exactly a perfect institution and does make occasional slip-ups, some of which waste money, but that's just peanuts relative to the deprivation of funding, which by now must have totalled a good £80 million since the Conservatives started running the council and the Labour Government didn't like that one bit. Hence their retaliation: that's the way they are...
If anyone doubts the council's financial prudence and high value for money, all the financial assessments, inspections and audits have consistently demonstrated this in virtually all instances, and we still charge one of the lowest rates of Council Tax in the country—so that is an obvious red herring. No: the fault does not lie with the council: it is entirely and clearly down to deliberate starvation of funds by the Labour Government during the years when Gordon Brown was Chancellor. Well worth remembering, is that!