Recently another nail was driven into the coffin of local democracy in Sutton. A full council meeting agreed to spend £44 for every resident in the Borough to build a controversial £8.5million pet project known as the Sutton Life Centre. The centre has a new library, youth centre, climbing wall and multi-use games area, but the main attraction is considered to be a multimedia indoor space to teach ‘citizenship’ to school children.
The decision was nodded through with the help of compliant backbench Lib Dem councillors in the knowledge that construction workers were due on site the following morning and so financial penalties would have been payable if the decision had been delayed or the proposal rejected. Who signed the contract? How much would we have lost in penalties? What was the point of turning up to the meeting?
The ambition for this project grew when it attracted a £4million government grant. The rest of the money is coming from council reserves and a raid on the budgets for school repairs and council building maintenance. Whilst the Council were raiding the piggy bank, Sutton Conservatives were leading the calls for the Council to join many others in freezing the tax in these difficult times. Our campaign website has more details.
If the project falls short of its income target by 20%, the Council will have to find £95,000 each year to keep the place open. The conditions of the grant mean that if the Council sell the building or change its use in the next twenty years, we may need to pay the £4million back.
Councillors always have to balance risk. We are still £5.5million light after taking a Treasury management risk in lending the money to an Icelandic bank. This is a risk too far at the wrong time. On top of the effects of the recession and the Olympic precept, we may be left with a millstone around residents’ necks for two decades.
The Liberal Democrats describe the project as part movie-set, part theme park and hail it as a unique project in the UK, with Milton Keynes Safety Centre as its nearest cousin. In contrast comments from
residents include “From gang crime to recycling, it's a multi-media indoctrination zone,” and the obvious point, “Frankly, I’m baffled as to how anyone has ever learned to not take drugs, not join gangs, not
get involved in antisocial behaviour without the benefit of an immersive simulation ‘experience’”. Even cursory scrutiny would cause people in the real world to consign it to the scrapheap.
The new library will be smaller than the one that it replaces just down the road, which will be sold off. The youth club replaces one which was flattened to make way for the new centre. The climbing wall is more expensive to use than a private indoor wall nearby. The citizenship classes will cost three times as much as the existing course, currently hosted at Sutton Junior Tennis Centre, but which is being withdrawn to drag people to the Life Centre. The Milton Keynes Safety Centre attracts 20,000 schoolchildren each paying £8. The Sutton Life Centre needs 40,000 children paying £9 just to break even. The experience of Milton Keynes is that entry fees will take some time to build up, and are unlikely to ever cover running costs, typically only providing 30 – 35% of annual costs. Sutton have ignored this advice, basing their business plan on being full to capacity on day one and bringing in a whopping 70% of their total income on these visits.
You would have thought this would have made the lead councillor’s eyes water. You would have been wrong. Cllr. Lord Graham Tope has ploughed on regardless, basing his projected visitor numbers on children in Years 6 and 8, going to school within one hour of Sutton. We haven’t been introduced to the marketing director yet, but they will have to be at the top of their game. According to their own report, there are only about 67,800 children who fit this profile. Sutton needs 60% of these to turn up to avoid taxpayers having to bale out this woefully thought out centre. Tesco can only manage a market penetration of 30%. Even Barack Obama could only reach out to 52% of Americans.
Since the Sutton Life Centre is pitching comfortably above the most popular man on the planet, the assumptions surely needed at least a cursory second glance from someone independent and with something approaching a business brain.
Kevin Costner built a baseball field in his farm when told by ghostly voices in 'Field of Dreams', "build it and they will come". He built it, they came, but it was just a film. You cannot play fast and loose with public money. It is not appropriate to say that because we have got £4million from a national grant, we need to bend over backwards to match it at a time of financial turmoil, moving money away from education, adult social services and reserves to fill the gap. The message needs to be sent loud and clear: the public purse, filled with taxpayers' cash, should not be the plaything of politicians.