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Question marks over future of Watton Sports Centre

PUBLISHED: 10:48 24 October 2016 | UPDATED: 13:33 28 October 2016

Watton Sports Centre

Watton Sports Centre

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A volunteer-run leisure centre is facing closure within six months after a deal excluded it from council funding, according to its former chairman.

Bryan Wykes quit his role as chairman last weekBryan Wykes quit his role as chairman last week

A volunteer-run leisure centre is facing closure within six months after a deal excluded it from council funding, according to its former chairman.

Breckland Council signed a contract in 2005 with a company called Parkwood Leisure to build Dereham Leisure Centre and revamp Breckland Leisure in Thetford.

But the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal, through which money was poured into the Dereham and Thetford facilities, meant the council would have to make compensatory payments to the company should it fund any similar sports centre within 10 miles of Dereham and Thetford that competed with or undermined the financial viability of the council’s leisure centres.

It has left the Watton centre needing urgent financial help, according to its former chairman Bryan Wykes.

Mr Wykes, who quit as chairman last week, accused Breckland Council of letting Watton down by pumping millions of taxpayers’ pounds into leisure facilities in Dereham and Thetford – while giving the Watton centre nothing.

“Money is going out faster than it is coming in,” Mr Wykes said. “With the PFI, we’ve been excluded. The people of Watton deserve the same that everybody else is getting.”

The sports centre is home to Watton Hockey Club and Watton United FCThe sports centre is home to Watton Hockey Club and Watton United FC

But the council said it had offered the sports centre on Dereham Road help to get funding.

Rob Walker, executive director for place at Breckland Council, said: “We are aware of the situation facing Watton Sports Centre and have, on many occasions, offered support and advice to help them, signposting them to a range of funding sources and offering help with applications.”

Sports clubs or community groups can apply to the council’s match funding scheme which awards grants of up to £20,000.

Mr Wykes said since April the Watton centre had made a loss of around £13,000 and had £80,000 left in reserves.

The centre, which is run by volunteers through Watton Sports Association and Social Club, also needs thousands of pounds of investment, including £200,000 to resurface its artificial pitch, according to its manager Kevin Jones.

Mr Wykes said they rely on grants and membership fees to keep the facility running, but they couldn’t continue without urgent investment.

Breckland Council has £55m left to pay Parkwood Leisure over the remaining lifetime of the PFI contract, which runs until 2037, but it would have to pay more if it supported another sports centre within a 10-mile radius of the Dereham or Thetford centres. The council said the clause was common to PFI agreements and meant Parkwood could protect its investments.

As part of the PFI deal, the council pays Parkwood £2m a year for sports facilities in Breckland.

“What really gets me is the amount of money being spent on the PFI contract,” said Mr Wykes. “We can get grants but we can’t live off grants. We need a steady stream of funding.”

The centre used to receive £20,000 a year from the council, but that was stopped in the late 1990s when the artificial pitch used by hockey clubs was built at the site.

In the meantime, the PFI deal was signed, stopping the council giving Watton Sports Centre regular funding.

Mr Jones said an extra £20,000 a year would “remove problems”.

He said they had a survey of the premises in 2013 which found £80,000 a year was needed to maintain facilities. “That sum is beyond us and the community,” said Mr Jones.

And he said the list of repairs was growing – one boiler has been broken for more than two years, while the air conditioning needs fixing.

“We’ve never got enough money to do anything properly,” he said.

The centre’s accounts show a surplus last year of just under £27,000, but Mr Wykes said they only made that surplus because of a grant from Watton Town Council of £10,000 and insurance money of £21,500 for an arson attack on the seating area at the football pitch.

Mr Wykes said he resigned as chairman last week when Watton Town Council put up barriers to the centre receiving another £10,000 grant this year.

“I couldn’t get support from my local town council,” he said. “I’ve poured my heart and soul into this.”

Beryl Bunning, chairman and mayor of Watton Town Council, said a decision was yet to be made on giving the centre a grant this year.

“Thetford and Dereham sports centres have grown with the towns but Watton Sports Centre has not as Watton has been without outside assistance,” she said.

“Watton Town Council has helped financially as sporting facilities are important to a good percentage of residents of all ages and abilities.”

Mr Walker said Breckland Council had pledged to help the centre with an approach for funding that presents a “clear and sustainable business case”. However, to date, its management has chosen not to pursue this option, he said.

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