Wirral Council will demolish Woodchurch Leisure Centre in a blow to campaigners who raised thousands of pounds.
The leisure centre on the Woodchurch estate was closed in 2022 following massive budget cuts alongside nine libraries, five public toilets, and two golf courses. Initially proposed for demolition, the leisure centre had begun to move through a process called community asset transfer.
A community group was then set up called Woodchurch Wellbeing to look at taking it over, reopening the pool, setting up a cafe, and creating a community space for those on the Beechwood, Woodchurch, and Noctorum estates. However its plans were rejected by Wirral councillors on November 21.
The decision was made at a council Policy and Resources committee meeting where the press and public were excluded to allow councillors to discuss confidential financial information. Around 20 protestors had gathered outside Birkenhead Town Hall to oppose the proposed demolition.
Wirral’s deputy leader Cllr Jean Robinson who represents Upton ward including the Woodchurch abstained but all other councillors voted for demolition. This was with an amendment asking officers to review future opportunities for the site for leisure and address swimming needs on the Woodchurch as part of this.
A report presented to the committee recommended the council move ahead with demolishing the leisure centre on the basis funding hadn’t been secured and the costs to reopen the centre. However this report was criticised by Woodchurch Wellbeing for not reflecting their plans but “designed to create a narrative to fulfil a predetermined need for demolition.”
The local authority had agreed to transfer the leisure centre in principle but only on the condition the community group refreshed its business plan and match funded a council contribution of £330,000 towards the project. The group had raised £83,000 by a 27 October deadline and were looking at other sources of external funding but had fallen short of the council’s target.
Woodchurch Leisure Centre was built in the 1960s and according to a council report, it “lacked significant investment over the years” and is “a costly building to operate because of its construction, layout and condition.”
The report added, “In the past few months there has been wanton vandalism of the building by local gangs. Despite the building being secure at ground level they accessed the building through one of the skylights using mechanical tools.” A separate report estimated repair costs were £29,718.
The report said the council’s finance director Matthew Bennett “advises that the business plan is not viable and that transferring this asset on the basis of it would be a very high risk for the Council.
“The Council would be tied down to a long lease to an organisation which did not have a viable business plan and which might struggle to find the resources to keep the premises safe for public use over the duration of the lease.”
However, Lynn Howe, one of Woodchurch Wellbeing’s directors, said, “At worst the report is a deliberate misrepresentation of our proposals to mislead and misdirect both the public and committee members in carrying out their elected duties. We can only hope and assume this is not the case.”
Protesters who turned up at the town hall said they had fond memories of the centre. Natasha Clarke said, “There was nothing better than getting your chicken soup out of the vending machine. We were there every Saturday and Sunday. It was brilliant.”
Angela Ford felt the leisure centre had been left to deteriorate. She said she used to go every day after school, adding, “If it was West Kirby baths, there would be uproar. It’s such a shame. My grandkids will never get to swim there.”
Justine Clark said, “I do think if it was in a different area, it would be looked at differently. It’s not fair.
“Parents cannot afford to travel to other baths. That was on their doorstep and what exercise do kids get now?”
Jenny Colewell said, “This is a last chance to get across that we are serious about keeping the leisure centre, not just the pool but also a place to meet, a place for our kids to go,” adding: “If it gets knocked down, we have just got no hope.”
Others felt antisocial behaviour and teenagers getting into trouble will become more of an issue arguing a new community centre and swimming pool would provide job opportunities and give them something to do.
Samantha Smith said Woodchurch Wellbeing’s plans would be “a community thing,” adding, “You could have dance classes, somewhere for the kids to go. They hang outside the shops because they’ve got nowhere to go,” adding, “It would give them a place to go and a lot of them would look forward to swimming after school.”
At the end of the meeting, councillors from all political parties voted to not transfer the leisure centre and find someone to demolish it. A change put forward by councillors Liz Grey and Janette Williamson who previously campaigned against demolition asked the council to “undertake a comprehensive review of future opportunities for the use of the Woodchurch leisure centre site” and make sure this “addresses the leisure needs of the Woodchurch residents, including swimming.”
Cllr Grey said the situation was heartbreaking, adding, “If we possibly could have saved it, we would have saved it. It’s only because we genuinely felt it was just not doable.”
Cllr Williamson said there was recognition by council officers the process should have not gone on this long and demolition costs had “put it out of reach” calling it a really difficult decision.
Lead image: Protestors outside Birkenhead Town Hall opposing the demolition of Woodchurch Leisure Centre. Credit: Edward Barnes