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Swimming club’s inability to secure slot in new South Lake Leisure Centre ‘a disgrace’

Councillors from across Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough have expressed their disappointment at a swimming club’s inability to secure a slot at the South Lake Leisure Centre’s swimming pool.

The issue was discussed at a meeting of Council’s leisure and community services committee on Monday were one councillor said he was “flabbergasted” officers were not able to answer some of the questions asked of them.

Raising the issue, DUP group leader, Councillor Mark Baxter told the committee that long before the complex was built, members of the building’s project board were assured the pool could accommodate everyone who wished to use it.

“Meeting after meeting we were always told that we have all the water we need and can accommodate any amount of groups,” he said.

“I believe we were told if there was an 80 per cent increase in usage we could accommodate it.

“I don’t know how many swimming clubs there are in the borough, this is one group that wants to come and use the swimming club three mornings a week.

“I am disappointed, I don’t know why this group is not being accommodated. I understand it is a very complicated process but I am at a loss to know why this group hasn’t been accommodated a couple of mornings a week.

“Can we get some clarity please. This is not about making policy it is about common sense.”

Reminding the chamber certain issues could not be discussed in public, the committee’s chair, Councillor Keith Haughian invited officers to address the issue.

Council’s strategic director of neighbourhood services, Sharon O’Gorman told members the process to allocate space to groups had been agreed and that is the way the matter is being taken forward.

Councillor Louise McKinstry said she was of the understanding groups who submitted an expression of interest and were successful could start swimming in September but expressed concern this process has not yet started.

“This group had expressed an interest while that pool was still a car park,” said Cllr McKinstry.

“They have patiently waited their turn, there is room for them in the water and this group has behaved so well and trusted us with this issue.”

Councillor Catherine Nelson said she was of the view Council is currently denying this group space at the pool and “disenfranchising them”.

“We told this group to become a club, we told them that was the only way they would get space,” she said.

“We deem post-5pm as the most sought after slots, this group is looking in between 6 and 7:30am that the pool is sitting empty at this point.”

Cllr Nelson then asked council officers four specific questions: Since reopening has any group been given more lanes than agreed in the timetable; has a new group been given lane time outside of the timetables agreed; between 6 and 7:30am  is there space; has any group outside of the one discussed expressed interest in a permanent slot at that time.

Council’s head of leisure and community services, Jonathan Hayes said he would be unable to provide a definitive answer at the SLLC and said he would follow up on the issue with members.

This did not satisfy Cllr Nelson who noted the centre’s manager was present at the meeting and said she was not clear why, if they had the answers, they would not share them.

It was then reiterated that for a definitive answer it would be necessary to come back to members after the meeting. Cllr Nelson said she was not happy about this situation but was prepared to wait a short time for the answer.

Councillor Declan McAlinden described the treatment of the group in question as a “disgrace” and asked if groups looking to use other centres had to submit an expression of interest. He was informed they do.

Councillor Darryn Causby said he found it “incredible” that the officers present could not give councillors the answers they are requesting.

“Surely, we should have known this was coming and we should have been prepared for it. I find it incredible, with the greatest respect, that the overall centre manager cannot give us the information either,” he said.

“There were four simple question set out by Cllr Nelson and we can’t get any definitive answers and I think that is deeply unfortunate.”

Cllr Baxter said he was “flabbergasted” by the officer’s response to Cllr Nelson’s questions.

“I know the answers to at least three of those questions so to be told that they don’t have the answers, I am flabbergasted,” he said.

“When we come to committee meetings we really need to come armed with the details.”

An officer then explained that members agreed to the Expression of Interest (EoI) in December 2020 but did apologise for the length of time the process was taking.

“This process was intended to kick in post-Covid, we have only just started the swimming programme for schools and we are not up to full capacity,” he said.

“I apologise for not having moved forward with EoIs faster than that but we are moving into a position where we can discuss that.

“We have not disadvantaged any particular group and the intention is to be open, fair and transparent with everybody. I am sorry you did not get the answers to the detailed questions you wanted.”

A proposal to hold a working group meeting to discuss the issues at the SLLC this Thursday (September 16) and then once a month until Christmas was then agreed upon by the committee.

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