Calls made for North unitary to step in to save Kettering’s under threat leisure venue
But the unitary authority’s councillor in charge of finance says ‘money is tight’
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By Sarah Ward
The unitary council should step in to safeguard the future of Kettering Conference Centre, says the town’s former leader.
Last week staff and users of the leisure venue which is located in the centre of Kettering’s Leisure Village estate, were blindsided when operator Compass Group Services said it would be closing the venue, which employs about 80 staff and which houses the Lighthouse Theatre, the Balance Health Club and the Arena Sports Centre.
The operator, which has been running the conference centre for the past six years, put out statements on the theatre and health club’s websites which said rising operational costs post pandemic had meant it could no longer operate. Its last day for trading will be at the end of this month. Gym members are being offered refunds as are theatre goers who have bought tickets. Kettering’s James Acaster was due to perform for four nights at the venue in August.
It has come to light over the bank holiday weekend that the venue was put on the market for £7.65m back in January. The sales blurb says the venue has an annual income of £817,500 income and cited Compass Group’s pre tax profits as £189.4m. It also said the investment yield on the site is 10 per cent.
Long-time Kettering councillor Jim Hakewill, who was the former Conservative leader of the borough council and is now an independent, said the unitary authority North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) could and should step in to prevent the closure and said he thought the leadership is being too cautious.
He said unitary councillors have not been briefed on any of the detail and he found out when residents did about the planned closure.
“Given the risk of the centre closing I would have expected that some form of plan would have been worked out to keep the facility running until such time as a new buyer comes along.
“I would hope that there will be a very rapid announcement from the political leadership to explain to the community what the council’s interest is and what face-to-face negotiations are taking place with Compass and Phoenix to preserve this facility for all those who have used it over the years.
“If this facility closes it will have a massive impact on the town, its residents and businesses and also the reputation of Kettering, among all those who come from many miles away.”
The centre, which was built in the 1990s on farmland owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, is used by thousands of people each month and is also the national centre for volleyball.
On Friday the council issued a statement from the executive member responsible for leisure Helen Howell which said the authority understood how much the venue was valued and is keen that arrangements are put in place so that ‘services can be restored at the facility as quickly as possible’. She said the council was working with all concerned to review its legal position regarding contracts.
NN Journal spoke to Kettering town council leader Lloyd Bunday, who is also the finance portfolio holder on the North unitary, who said he ‘does not want to see the place close’ but said ultimately the authority was not the owner of the building.
“We would like to find a solution. Although the council will explore all avenues the council does not own the premises.”
He said he understood that there were currently negotiations and discussions going on and asked whether he thought the authority could step in to prevent the closure, he said:
“Money is tight and what I don’t want to do is put NNC into the financial situation that Northamptonshire County Council got itself into.”
Famously the authority went bankrupt in 2017, a situation which led to the creation of the two unitaries.
Explaining the complicated lease situation he said the council leases the site and building at a peppercorn rent from BQ Farms Ltd (of which until 2003 the Duke of Buccleuch was a director) and then has subleased it out to Phoenix Leisure Management, which has 95 years of the lease remaining. Phoenix Leisure than leases it to operators Compass. At the end of the 95 year lease, Cllr Bunday said the site would then become owned by the authority for six days before going back to BQ Farms Ltd.
Over the weekend a petition was started by Mike Balderson, who is chair of the Kettering Operatic Society Musical Theatre Company, which staged a show at the theatre last week. More than 9,500 people have already signed it. Cllr Bunday told us that he was unsure who the petition will be presented to as it is not the authority who has the final say.
Cllr Bunday also declared his own involvement with the venue, saying ‘years ago I managed the place for six months’ and has close friends who work there.
Labour’s Cllr Anne Lee, who represents the Windmill ward of Kettering, said she wants all of the unitary councillors who represent the town to get together to talk about solutions.
“It is one of the only facilities we have left in Kettering, as we are becoming a very impoverished town.
“It doesn’t escape anyone’s notice that Kettering is going down. It cannot be allowed to get lost.”
The council does subsidise the Chester Farm estate which it inherited from the former county council. In an undisclosed deal it took over total responsibility for the venue near Irchester from the west authority and agreed to help subsidise it financially for the next few years. Corby’s leisure facilities are also run in-house by the unitary authority.