Proposal to pause Western Way project during time of financial uncertainty for public services
08 Sep 2023
A recommendation is set to be made to change plans for the new Western Way leisure facilities in Bury St Edmunds due to national financial uncertainty for public services.
Instead, West Suffolk Council would reinvest in the existing Bury St Edmunds leisure facilities to bring them up to scratch and to ensure the pool provision remains open during these challenging times, using an existing £724,000 a year budget.
The move follows a review of the Western Way project in the light of economic uncertainties around build costs and borrowing interest rates plus the even greater financial burdens being placed on public services across the UK with reduced national funding. All of which add further financial risk to the project and the council’s funding at a challenging time and when residents rely more and more on council services.
While West Suffolk Council’s financial position remains robust some other authorities across the UK have had to bring in emergency measures and Government help to meet the financial pressures made worse by the current economic state.
The pause means the council can look at possible alternatives for the Olding Road site while maintaining leisure services in Bury St Edmunds. By concentrating on re-investing in the current facilities the Council can look to attract outside funding for the centre which needs repairs and facilities brought back up to scratch.
Councillor Cliff Waterman, Leader of West Suffolk Council, said in a statement:
“Keeping leisure centres open and helping improve the health and wellbeing of local communities is a priority. But to do so in this cost-of-living crisis and with reduced public funding means we need certainty over our budgets so we can continue to deliver high quality services and initiatives. Given the level of investment involved, Western Way is a massive project and potential financial risk during this national economic crisis.
“These proposals are a sensible way forward and safest in terms of risk to the public purse while providing communities access to much needed leisure services now and in the future.
“The council like all public services is facing extreme pressure from inflation, interest rates and the energy crisis. In May, we said we would be considering the Western Way project before making any final decisions to proceed. We understand the original aspirations for Western Way but things have changed since the original case was made and we have to take our decision to proceed in 2023, and not in the past.
“We believe that the challenging economic conditions mean it is right to pause and re-think the re-use of the Olding Road site. This is to make sure we get this decision right, and that the project is still affordable and not pressured into the wrong decision potentially committing us to a significant sum and risks for a new leisure centre. There are abortive costs in stopping, but with the present uncertainties the risks of carrying on could be greater. At this time around £2.4 million of the previously agreed capital project has already been spent and the council will be using as much of that work as it can in helping look at options going forward. Some of that funding paid for works that would have needed to be done, whatever option is chosen. While the majority will be abortive, costs to spend even more at this time would be too risky.
“To remove this pressure, and to ensure the viability of the current leisure centre we are proposing taking the most risk-averse approach by using existing budget put aside to address its condition. This means staying in the existing leisure centre for the next few years and using that earmarked money to carry out essential repairs and maintenance – catching up on the refurbishments put on hold while the case to build a new centre was explored. This focuses in on a small capital project that is less risky to manage at a time of great uncertainty and provides residents with leisure facilities.
“Staying in the current building means we are able to apply to the competitive national bidding processes for Sport England support for existing swimming pools and also government decarbonisation budgets which are only available to existing buildings. However, there is no guarantee we will get this funding.
“This is a decision for all councillors to take. An initial report will be presented to Cabinet and Council in September which will include a recommendation to start work on that refurbishment as soon as possible. We would then report back later on new options for the Olding Road site, hopefully by early 2024, when we have had chance to carry out that work.
“We would like to thank all project stakeholders and partners for their support on the project to date. In fact, we are very keen that they remain partners in the project as we explore new ideas - all options are still open.
“We have also enjoyed working with Morgan Sindall as our preferred contractor for Western Way since 2022 and we are keen to continue that relationship with them for the revised project if possible so that we can carry forward that momentum and shared understanding.”