The Champaign is on Ice - Update 12 Feb 2007

I have been asked to provide an update for the website, and to be honest, I have been wondering what to say. We won. The Lime Kiln stays open. Naturally, like everyone else, I am delighted by the outcome, although I remain cautious about the reasons for the reprieve, and about the long-term future of the centre. I suppose I have also been preparing mentally for the prospect of having to go down the community solution, if no one took over the Lime Kiln. I have already put an enormous amount of time and effort into the campaign, but I know that would have paled into insignificance beside the amount of work that a community takeover would have involved. I am relieved that I won’t have to commit to that workload, but at the same time, it leaves me feeling curiously flat.

It is very hard to gauge the effect of a campaign like SOS, and I suppose we owe our survival mainly to DC Leisure’s decision that the Lime Kiln was the most viable of the three centres set to close. However, NWDC chose to do something that, as recently as our meeting with them on Jan. 25th, they said they would not do. At that time they said, categorically, that the budget for leisure was £818,000, and that there was no way they could or would increase it; they did. Due to cuts in other services, DC has been given over £1m to run four centres. Undoubtedly, the power and the passion of our campaign was a factor in that decision, although, of course, NWDC will never admit that.

It is also interesting to note that the Steering Group were beginning to be criticised for our direction of the campaign. We were being told that the strategy of Calne and Cricklade, who spent a lot more time talking to the politicians, was going to prove much more effective. Amongst our detractors was Leader of the Council Carol O’Gorman, who informed us that if the Lime Kiln closed it would be entirely the fault of SOS. How like a politician to blame it all on an organisation that was not even in existence until after the closures were announced, let alone throughout the last six years of fiscal and operational mismanagement by NWDC and NWLL. Carol O’Gorman told us that she has been integrally involved with the campaign to keep Calne open since 23rd November. With the decision to stick with the closure decision for Calne made on February 8th, our SOS group has been proved right. We were absolutely correct to keep those politicians who had voted for closure totally out of our campaign; we got the result we wanted without their ‘assistance’.

Press reports that NWDC rejected our business plan are irrelevant, since we made it crystal clear that our plan was only to be considered if no commercial organisation wanted to run the Lime Kiln. That situation did not arise. I was ready for our plan to be rejected if DC Leisure had not stepped in; indeed, there was no way we could devise a proper business plan with the information provided. To obtain all the relevant information, we would have had to form a properly constituted legal entity that could sign a confidentiality agreement with NWLL. No one was going to take that step until it was certain that we would have to run the Lime Kiln ourselves. Calne and Cricklade would have had the same problems, and NWDC should now talk to them about revising their plans.

So how should we feel about the future? Well, if I may mix a few metaphors, we are not out of the woods yet, and if we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must hope it isn’t a train. We must ask ourselves why NWDC have had this sudden change of heart. Is it because Cllr. Diane Moore has suddenly realised the stupidity of her comments about the majority of people not using leisure centres and sports centres not being a necessary component of healthy living? Perhaps she eventually listened to my rebuttal along the lines of the majority of people don’t use libraries and hospitals, or that the overwhelming majority of pupils at Wootton Bassett School do use the centre? Maybe she got round to reading the many reports available on our generally unhealthy lifestyle? I doubt it. No, she probably just realised that she and her cronies were becoming just about unelectable at precisely the wrong time.

On the subject of politics, during this campaign I have seen a lot more of our local government representatives than I have ever seen before, or than I ever want to see again. This has opened my eyes to a number of people who appear to be self-serving, secretive, questionable in their motives, and far better at talking than doing. Cllr. O’Gorman asked Richard Ward and me if we had ever thought of becoming councillors; with her shining example of leadership to inspire us, no. She also said that she became a councillor because she ‘wanted to change things.’ I just about managed to stop myself saying ‘Well, you’ve certainly done that.’ There’s a time and a place for everything.

I don’t think I am the only one who has been appalled at this glimpse of ‘local democracy’ in action. The heavily pregnant Sue Hughes (baby is due on Monday) went all the way to Chippenham on Thursday for an ‘open’ meeting, only to be told that the part concerning leisure centres was secret. There have been, of course, notable exceptions, including Chris Wannell, and some other members of Wootton Bassett Town Council, and Town Clerk Johnathan Bourne (not strictly speaking a politician anyway), who have given us their backing. We have also had the full support of our local MP James Gray, whose discussions with senior managers at various leisure companies were a source of great discomfort to NWDC’s officers and elected members. What a shame.

We have had quite a few emails and calls expressing thanks for our campaign, of which we are very appreciative. I know some people who signed up to help have been underused, or may think their contributions will not now be utilised. I suppose that, so far, our most active workers have been the Publicity Group and the Steering Committee, with many contributions from people in other groups, often outside of the area they initially volunteered to help with. If we had had to go down the community route, that emphasis would have shifted somewhat to our Business Group, who have done an enormous amount of work to prepare for that eventuality. I don’t believe we should waste those efforts, and I will be talking to the Business and Fundraising Groups about the possibility of presenting our findings to DC Leisure as a report.

I would like to thank everyone who contributed in any way to the campaign, but there are a few people who deserve special mention. We should all, of course, be grateful to Richard Ward for his energy and vision as one of the founders of SOS, and to James Gray for lending us his support and the prestige of his position. Richard Howells has done a great job with the website, which he set up so quickly, and has maintained and developed so well. Everyone on the Publicity Group has done a marvellous job, with Mike Brewser, Alisa Burois, Graham King, Kevin Pamphillon, Mike Thomas, Don Scott, and Tim Magness contributing their own special skills, resulting in exceptional coverage and some high profile events.

There have been valuable contributions from the business group too, including a great deal of research by Peter Hewitt-Dean and Alistair Aitken, leading to a SWOT analysis, which I hope will form part of our report. Jan Bardwell provided useful inside information from a local government perspective and has done research on CIPFA statistics. Phil Bevan gave us a link to the Ridgeway School, whose business manager Astrid Morris wrote a business plan that provided the basis of the document we submitted.

I must make special mention of Tony Baker, whom many of you do not know. Tony is a very experienced management accountant who helped us by looking at the NWLL accounts and other financial information, gave us the impetus to think about our own business plan, and was invaluable in preparing the plan that was submitted. Along with ‘the other Richard Ward’ (another accountant) Tony went to meet NWLL’s accountant, uncovering much valuable information in the process.

Rob Dorran and Alistair Aitken looked into links with leisure companies, including DC leisure. Our Fundraising Group, Carole Williams, Inge Davies, Helen White, Claire Rigby, Gill Fitzgerald and John Clark raised money when asked, and helped with many other projects. John Clark provided me with one of the more positive moments of the campaign, during a meeting where we discussed sponsorship issues, which would certainly have been vital if the community had had to step in. Whether we can action any of John's outstanding ideas with DC at the helm remains to be seen.

I would also like to thank Chris Wannell (leader of the Town Council), Johnathan Bourne (Town Clerk), Chris Montecute (Head) and Cat Mangham of Wootton Bassett School, Jane Ryall of Enterprise Futures for her expert advice, Phil Tanner, an accountant representing the school, and Angie Tanner, for her Lime Kiln energy survey, and the benefit of her knowledge of the building and its operation. If I have left anyone out, I apologise, but even I have not been aware of everyone’s individual contributions.

Of course, there is one person not yet mentioned, observing the great British tradition of saving the best until last. Without doubt, the person who has made the greatest contribution to SOS is our Secretary Sue Hughes, who has also been the driving force behind our publicity campaign. Apart from her marketing expertise, (‘The Champaign is on Ice’ was a brilliant idea Sue), more than anything, it has been Sue’s energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to get stuck in which has made her, in my opinion, our outstanding campaigner. Sue has done all this whilst becoming more and more obviously pregnant, (a difficulty which, let’s be honest, is never going to trouble me or Richard Ward!) with her baby due on Monday Feb. 12th. Nice timing, I suppose; an enormous thank-you, Sue for all your hard work.

I would also like to apologise if we have not always been efficient at keeping everyone informed about what was going on. It is just something that there wasn’t always time to do. It has been more important to do things than to talk about them. I did ask for help in setting up channels of communication, but the response was underwhelming.

What should SOS do next? I don’t know. Whatever the outcome last week, I was intending to organise another User Group meeting, and I still think that should be done, with representatives from each club, and anyone who was on any of our groups, in attendance. Perhaps that is where we should decide on the future of SOS, if it has one. As I mentioned earlier, I would like to create a report from all the work our business group has done.

As a community, I think we need to keep a watchful eye on the activities of our district council, and I for one will be thinking long and hard before I make a mark on any ballot paper. During a radio interview on Friday Cllr. Moore was muttering darkly about the need for capital investment at the Lime Kiln – or a rebuild. Where would that rebuild be? Now, remind me where the leader of the council lives? Not in Wootton Bassett. That’s the current leader of the council, of course. These things have a habit of changing. Enoch Powell, who had some personal experience, said, “all political careers end in failure.” I would add that some are shorter than others.

That’s all folks, must … dash dash dash …

Brian Mantel

As the editor of the web site - I get to add a footnote to Brian’s comments. 

I completely agree that Sue Hughes demonstrated energy, that would put a professional athlete to shame, and awesome commitment.  Sue, you were amazing.  It was a privilege to work with you on this.

Brian deserves our thanks as well.  In a world where most sit back whining that 'they' should do something about it, Brian got off his sofa and put his shoulder to a very large rock.  He started something moving, by climbing a not-very-safe-looking step ladder, and telling 600 people in the Lime Kiln Centre that we needed to be organised.  He was right and he has given an enormous amount of his personal time and energy to this campaign.  Brian ensured that the campaign was run professionally, and with dignity.  We had an impact because we had a powerful argument that we carried forward effectively.  Not because we were rude, nasty, or scary.  Brian had a major influence on that direction.

Brian – Thank You.

Richard Howells