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Controversial leisure centre approved by Kingston Council

By Charlotte Lillywhite - Local Democracy Reporter

27th May 2022 | Local News

A new car-free leisure centre will replace the beloved Kingfisher in Kingston despite anger from locals over its suitability and cost. The controversial facility proposed by Kingston Council will include two swimming pools, a café, five-a-side rooftop football pitches and a climbing wall. 

The Kingfisher leisure centre has been shut since late 2019 after it was decided that repairs to fix the roof would cost more than £5 million. Plans to bulldoze the centre were approved in March 2022 despite a petition signed by more than 3,800 locals to save it. 

Kingston Council voted to approve the new centre in a highly-anticipated planning meeting last night (May 26) after hearing objectors' fears about the cost of the £40 million project, traffic and impact on neighbours.

The meeting also faced fresh controversy as councillors were told a press release announcing approval of the plans had been published on the council's website before a decision had been reached. Steve Kent, who stood as a Tory candidate in the local elections, told members: "The council has already placed this application on the website as passed."

In a statement to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the council apologised for the "accidental early publication". The statement said: "As is usual practice communications are prepared in advance for scenarios of a positive outcome and lines ready for a negative outcome. This was published on the council's website in error for a short period and was removed as soon as discovered.

"We are now urgently investigating how this error happened and will review practices to ensure further checks are in place to prevent this from happening again." Councillors said during the meeting that they had not seen the press release.

Mr Kent added that he had seen little support for the plans among locals. He said: "I stood for Kingston Town, I spoke to nearly 900 people about this. There's very little support but a lot of people are concerned that the facilities are not suitable for use."

Objectors argued the centre would cause traffic problems because it only proposes two disabled parking spaces. There will be 124 cycle parking spaces onsite. Rosemary Williams said Fairfield residents were "very worried" and wanted a nearby car park to be used for the centre. She said they had "serious anxieties" about disturbance from the rooftop facilities. 

Caroline Shah, who ran as an Independent in May, said: "There will be a large number of years when particularly vulnerable residents will have no leisure facilities for use in Kingston town." 

But councillors were supportive of the plans. Lib Dem councillor Roger Hayes said: "If you announce that there's car parking, everybody will drive through it expecting to find some parking, will then cause you a lot of nuisance while they drive around inevitably not finding some parking and then going somewhere else to park or giving up completely and going home." 

He added: "I do not mourn the passing of the Kingfisher but I very much do like what this facility is seeking to offer and I think it is appropriate that we are considering this now as a new facility for the whole borough and indeed beyond."

Lib Dem councillor John Sweeney, speaking as a member of the public, said disabled people had been "poorly served" by the previous leisure centre and that the new facility would be "suitable and useable in all areas". He said he had spoken to many people about the plans who were supportive and wanted the council to "get on with it".

The site includes the Kingfisher, a children's playground and the Grade II listed Kingston Museum and Library. A statement submitted with the plans says: "The proposed development presents an excellent opportunity to bring the vacant site back into use with a better facility in terms of quantity and quality of community and sporting facilities which will be co-located in a sustainable and highly accessible location." 

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