By Graham Smith
A petition about the future of leisure centre provision across Cornwall will be discussed when Cornwall Council meets on Tuesday next week (30th November.)
Scores of protestors are planning to lobby the 87 councillors as they arrive for the meeting at County Hall, Truro, with some children missing school in order to chant slogans at their local politicians.
The fact that there will be a debate and vote on the petition is a clear sign that in fact no leisure centre now is likely to close - at least, not in the near future. The council has been emboldened in its dealings with its private management company, GLL, by the receipt of several alternative, and highly credible, expressions of interest.
The full council meeting may also have to run the gauntlet of dozens of questions from members of the public, who have until 12 noon on Thursday to submit them in writing.
The leisure centre petition, organised by Independent councillor Robin Moorcroft from Wadebridge, has received more than 5,500 signatures - well over the threshold to mean it must be considered before full council.
It has now been added to next week’s agenda at the discretion of the council’s vice chairman, councillor Jordan Rowse.
The petition’s inclusion on the agenda is highly instructive, because council officials could have waited 15 days from receipt of the petition before responding. They could not have prevented a full council debate forever, but they could have delayed it until January.
The stage is now set for a piece of full-blown theatre over which political party was responsible for the closure threat and which political party can eventually claim credit for saving the leisure centres.
Councillor Linda Taylor, Conservative leader of Cornwall Council, said: “I am pleased that this petition will be considered before full council.
“We have already heard from over 4,700 residents through our consultation on this matter, and have held numerous meetings in the affected areas to ensure everyone was kept fully in the picture and able to have their say.
“That feedback is now being collated and will be reported to us at cabinet.
“These are difficult times for councils across the country as we deal with rising demand for our services that outstrips any growth in income, combined with the unique impacts of the pandemic over the past two years.
“Since we took control of the council in May, we have been working to ensure we fix the finances while maintaining frontline services as much as we possibly can.
“Some difficult decisions have to be made, and innovative solutions must be found to ensure we can bridge our budget gap while focussing on our priorities, which reflect the issues our residents have told us matter to them.
“We are doing all we can, and no decisions have yet been made, something I hope we can ensure is clear when this matter is raised at full council next week.”
A political bust-up, however, is inevitable after the council’s top lawyer vetoed a cross-party motion designed to have the same effect as the petition – a vote of all councillors.
Mrs Taylor added: “I was disappointed to learn that there was a failed attempt to bring a motion to full council, which was asking me as the leader to undermine the council’s constitution, and act in a way which is not in accordance with the law.
“This is absolutely something I would never do and I am grateful to the Council’s Vice Chairman for throwing this out, after seeking legal advice.
“What I was most disappointed by was that this motion was proposed and seconded by councillors Julian German and Hilary Frank, the previous leader, and chairman of Cornwall Council.
“This might be how they used to run the Council – but this is not how we will. This is scandalous.
“They both should know the constitution of the council better than most, so I was really surprised by their attempts to ask to the council to act in such contempt.”
Most leisure centre campaigners may well be completely bemused and baffled by the political party point-scoring, but probably will not care as long as all of the political parties are trying to claim credit for keeping open the centres.
Mrs Taylor concluded: “The constitution of Cornwall Council simply does not allow me, as the leader, to delegate the responsibility for a decision like this to full council. It is just not possible.”
While technically Mrs Taylor is correct – the constitution of the council requires a cabinet model of governance – the reality is that the cabinet is appointed by the leader, and the leader has to be elected by the full council.
Launceston's Conservative councillor John Conway has threatened to resign from his party if his local leisure centre is closed. At least 12 other Tory councillors represent communities where their leisure centre is under threat. The Conservatives' overall majority in the council chamber is only three.
This is fine as long as the leader has constructed an overall majority, either by coalition with other groups or with their own political group holding more than half of all council seats.
A similar game of grandmother’s footsteps was tried in 2012 over the council’s disastrous attempt to outsource services to BT - but ended badly for the then Conservative leader, who promptly lost a vote of confidence and had to resign.