Sheffield leisure centre email row

Stocksbridge Leisure centre faces closure. Emma Gregory outside
Stocksbridge Leisure centre faces closure. Emma Gregory outside
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Secret emails seen by The Star have revealed Sheffield Council could keep Stocksbridge Leisure Centre open for less than half its current subsidy - and that visitor numbers have been going up.

Correspondence shows council officials decided to recommend closure a month before the proposal was made public – extra time which could have helped community campaigners.

When the proposed closure was announced in January, Sheffield Council said visitor numbers were falling and claimed the venue needed a £400,000 subsidy. Emails between Paul Billington, Sheffield Council’s director of culture and environment, and Sheffield International Venues were revealed after campaign group 4SLC won a bid for a judicial review into the closure.

But the centre will still be mothballed and closes today.

Faye Howard, spokeswoman for 4SLC, said: “It’s appalling. These officials have been treating the public with contempt and it’s not the way any honest business or organisation should behave.”

In one email, Steve Brailey, chief executive of Sheffield International Venues, said: “We can bring the cost of Stocksbridge to £180,000 if we only operate a pool.”

Mr Brailey said the subsidy would cover running the main pool. Other options were a £200,000 subsidy to retain both the main and learner pool, and £302,000 to keep the whole centre open.

But in January, days before the closure plan was revealed, Mr Billington said in an email to Mr Brailey and other SIV officers: “I know you guys were already looking at cost reductions if centre stayed open - however, prefer we stick only to the £400,000. Keep it simple.”

Another chain of emails discusses a request by a member of the public to Mr Brailey, asking him to reveal the ‘actual month and year’ closure was first discussed.

The discussions reveal the closure proposal was confirmed in December.

Mr Billington said: “Sheffield Council have been in discussion on options for future budget up to December. This included taking a look at every facility in the city.

“Sheffield Council did not receive notification on its likely Government grant until December 19. It was after this point that the council was in a position to confirm its officer proposals.”

In another exchange, Mr Brailey objected to the council’s claim of falling visitor numbers after the closure was announced in January.

He said: “Paul, too late now, but I thought you should drop the statement attendances were falling. We have increased business since we took over and have made a number of improvements.”

Mr Billington replied with figures showing falling visitors from 2007-8 to 2011-12, plus a prediction for 2012-13 which showed a further drop.

“Pretty sure the estimate will have come from your guys,” he said. “Low and falling figures are part of the reality of the centre.”