A community group is “quietly optimistic” it can save a Wirral leisure centre from demolition.
Woodchurch Leisure Centre was closed in 2022 after Wirral Council voted to close a near £19m gap in its budget with nine libraries, five public toilets, and two golf courses shut down.
The cuts came after the local authority was heavily criticised for its financial management and told to look at cutting services back after it requested emergency government funding in 2021. The council has also seen its budget cut by a quarter since 2010.
A petition signed by more than 5,000 people had called for the leisure centre to be saved but as part of the 2022 budget, it was closed as it was used less than other centres the council owned and heavily subsidised.
Since then, a number of the closed libraries and golf courses have been transferred into community hands but the leisure centre remains in limbo as Woodchurch Wellbeing, a community group hoping to take it over, struggled to find funds.
There is a potential lifeline for the centre from Wirral Council who have agreed to transfer the leisure centre in principle if two conditions are met by 27 October. This includes a revised business plan and additional funding that could match the council’s contribution of £330k which would ensure the long-term viability of the takeover.
The letter of intent issued by the council hopes to provide assurance to any potential funders that a handover to Woodchurch Wellbeing is possible.
Woodchurch Wellbeing, made up of a number of different community groups across the Beechwood, Noctorum, and Woodchurch estates, is now in talks to secure that funding as well as hosting fundraisers to help reach this goal. A large community event is planned at the Woodchurch pub on 15 October.
However if the community group can’t find £330k by the end of October, Wirral Council will likely move forward with plans to demolish the leisure centre entirely.
Lynne Howe, one of the directors of Woodchurch Wellbeing, said the deadline was a “huge pressure” but added: “If it’s not impossible, we have got to try. I am quietly optimistic that we might just pull this off.”
Those who lived in Woodchurch and the wider area pointed to a lack of services particularly for those over 13, lack of gyms, and swimming being a life-saving skill as reasons why they wanted to see the leisure centre reopen. One dog walker who lived nearby said, “It would be a shame to see it go. It would be criminal.”
Woodchurch Wellbeing hopes to first get the leisure centre’s two pools back up and running and allow people back into the building if they take it over. Beyond this, there are plans to bring in a charity shop, host theatre and community groups, work spaces, as well as better signpost people to support services.
Matt Gibbs who runs the Carrbridge Centre said, “We want to do something different that they can be proud of because they are proud of their estates,” adding: “You can raise the aspirations of what people can aspire to. I think people’s low expectations need to be stretched about what they can have and what they can achieve.”
Mr Gibbs thinks a takeover could be a positive message for an area that has had a lot of services cut in recent years including its library as well as youth and family support services. He added, “It’s the usual social housing issues but kind of concentrated in here and we are seeing the effect of losing youth services.
“It doesn’t give children a chance to do something different. The swimming pool is the focus because we are never going to have another one if we lose it.”
Wirral Council’s deputy leader Jean Robinson has previously called for a takeover bid to be given another chance at a committee meeting in June.
She said leisure centre had a “massive place” in the community, adding, “Swimming is the main thing that residents say they want to go back in to do. It is a life saving skill. There is a shortage of swimming provision but sadly the funding coming in doesn’t look at the social impact of swimming.”
In the last year, the Woodchurch estate has also been in national headlines following the murder of Elle Edwards which saw Connor Chapman jailed for at least 48 years.
Woodchurch Wellbeing hopes that by creating somewhere for the local community to come together, issues around crime and antisocial behaviour will improve and give the area a better name.
Lynne Howe added, “We want it to be seen as an opportunity for something positive. Here is an opportunity to do something special and bring in something special to this lovely place.
“We have got to remember its people. It’s people’s access to things that help their wellbeing.”