A United Community – The History of How Kidsgrove Sports Centre was Saved

In April 2017 it was announced that Newcastle Borough Council was to close Kidsgrove Sports Centre at the end of June. This closure was hugely controversial and in May 2017 local resident and then Councillor, Lionel Birch brought over 370 passionate and concerned residents together at Kidsgrove Town Hall for a meeting regarding the closure of Kidsgrove Sports Centre.

The meeting demonstrated the importance of affordable community leisure facilities and was a lively and factious meeting, where local Councillors were left in no doubt that this was not going to be a decision which the public simply accepted and would ultimately go away.

The meeting was highly charged and exceptionally emotive, however, what was exceptionally clear was how important Kidsgrove Sports Centre is to the local community.

Following on from this meeting, a local community group was formed. The Kidsgrove Action Group was a group of local residents who had the sole aim to ensure that Kidsgrove Sports Centre was not allowed to close.

The Action Group set about a campaign publicly of ensuring the community was aware of the closure, making sure that the elected members were in no doubt of the importance of the centre and how it wanted to ensure the centre remained open.

Ultimately, the Action Group did not succeed with this aim, as sadly the then leadership of the Council showed no desire to reverse its closure decision. In fact, it even closed the centre 1 day early, depriving many of their final chance to say what many thought would be the final “goodbye” to the much-used leisure facility.

It was a devastating day for the local community when the centre finally closed the door and one that many hoped would never happen. The heart really felt like it had been ripped out of the community.

Whilst the Action Group was protesting at the Council Offices in Newcastle, which sadly was ignored by the then leadership of the Council. Another organisation; The Kidsgrove Sports Centre Community Group (KSCCG) was being formed. This group was comprised initially of 5 passionate local residents, including bringing together both Lionel and Mark who had previously become well known locally from the public meeting, where they clashed publically.

It was becoming obvious that the former leadership of Newcastle Borough Council was quite happy to have Kidsgrove Sports Centre bulldozed and the site cleared. This meant that the number one priority for the KSCCG was to prevent this from happening. The organisation within 5 days successfully secured the required signatures and completed the paperwork to list the building as “an asset of community interest”. This was later approved, preventing the immediate bulldozing of the sports centre.

Alongside this, the KSCCG was busy visiting and speaking with other community-run leisure centres (The Pelican Centre, Stocksbridge Community Leisure Centre, Plas Madoc Leisure Centre). It was becoming increasingly clear this model could be successful in Kidsgrove and a business case was being developed to demonstrate this was indeed possible. Sadly, the former leadership of the Council was not that interested, ultimately resorting to simply ignoring all the attempts of communication which the organisation was making.

However, this was all about to change in December 2017 following a Special Meeting of Newcastle Borough Council.

The Special Meeting of Newcastle Borough Council in December 2017 was about to change everything. The former leader of the Council (who had been ignoring all our correspondence); facing a vote of no confidence, resigned from her position, and a new Council leader (Simon Tagg), and the administration were elected.

Cllr Tagg had previously led a debate into the closure of Kidsgrove Sports Centre and was supportive of our proposals from the onset of a community-led and operated sports centre. A meeting was quickly arranged with Cllr Tagg and the then acting CEO of the Council, where we explained our proposals, following which the Council formally made a commitment to look to reopen Kidsgrove Sports Centre.

This of course was always going to be fraught with difficultly. Not only was the small matter of securing substantial sums of money, but the building had been mothballed and was starting to fall victim to vandals. At this point, our organisation had secured some support from Sport England to help with the procurement of specialist industry expertise to help support the case for leisure provision in Kidsgrove. However, it was going to take the support and backing of the Council to actually enable our vision to become a reality.

Following a visit to the Sports Centre site in 2018, Councillors agreed that the building still had plenty of potential and in reality should never have been closed. Originally the plan was to just look to a quicker and lower-cost short-term solution focusing on the dry side element first, which would have kept the centre open for the next 5-10years. However, it quickly became apparent that actually, the most cost-effective and community beneficial refurbishment would be one that increased the life span of the building by at least 25years and incorporated both the dry side and swimming pool into the plans.

This proposal however set about a mammoth task for Cllr Tagg to secure the substantial sums of money required from the Council to help make these proposals into reality. He has not bulked at this challenge however and along with the support of Councillors in Newcastle they agreed to find the majority capital to make this possible. His drive and determination at a council level, has been equal to that of the community, making writing the wrong of closure one of his key priorities.

On Monday 4th March 2019 the Government announced the Town Investment Fund. Within hours we had written to the MP in charge of this fund, requesting that Kidsgrove should be included & specifically the Kidsgrove Sports Centre should benefit. Months later this request was realised as Kidsgrove was indeed announced as part of the Town Deal and was eligible to apply for funding from this pot.

It was becoming apparent from the scale of the refurbishment that additional funding from the Town Deal would be required. This was never going to be easy and we were fortunate at an area to have a newly elected MP (Jonathan Gullis MP) who was exceptionally passionate about the reopening of Kidsgrove Sports Centre, raising the profile, and lobbying for investment in the sports centre at both a local and national level. There is no doubt that raising Kidsgrove Sports Centre in the House of Commons helped to ensure this much-needed community asset would not be forgotten. It is probably fair to say the Sports Minister (Nigel Huddleston MP) and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (Robert Jenrick) could tell you everything about the centre – such is the passion and conviction that Jonathan has placed into ensuring the centre reopens.

We were exceptionally grateful that Kidsgrove Sports Centre received £400,000, from the advanced funds that were released as part of the Town Deal. This fund enabled the Phase 1 works to commence in full – seeing the building stripped back and being in a state ready for Phase 2 to commence.

In March 21 Kidsgrove was informed that it had been awarded £16.9m from the Town Deal fund, of which Kidsgrove Sports Centre was one of the projects which made up the bid. We were fortunate that the Sports Centre was listed as a project which was shovel-ready, however, to successfully access the required funding the project was going to have to pass a Green Book assessment. Effectively this is a Government process to assess projects, which is exceptionally complex. We have always known that our business case was viable, thanks to work we undertook with leisure experts – however, this was now going to be assessed and evaluated by experts in the treasury.

The project passed the Green Book assessment and as such Newcastle Borough Council received the notification that the funding for Kidsgrove Sports Centre, from the Town Deal would be supplied.

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