Life Centre or Life Sentence?

Life Centre or Life Sentence?

A picture of an ostrich just didn’t cut the mustard when writing about the latest on the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre.

As expected, Sutton’s senior LibDem councillors queued up to sing the praises of the Sutton Life Centre.

It was wonderful to have a library that would be open for longer than the one that it would replace, like the one at the Phoenix Centre in Beddington, without mentioning that many users of that library bemoan the fact that it may be open for longer but it lacks one small thing; books.

It was great that we would have a state of the art centre to teach Junior Citizenship, the silver bullet that would stop our young people getting involved in antisocial behaviour and drugs without recognising that such a course already exists in Sutton at one-third of the proposed charge per pupil.

Sometimes, even I am startled at the detachment of the LibDem administration. The Executive meeting on Monday when this was discussed was one such time. The Life Centre might just work. The 40,000 children that need to come to provide most of the income may arrive by the coachload. People may be chasing each other up the climbing wall to get their turn. Starbucks may start sending their trainee Baristas to the Sutton Life Centre to get experience as cappucino follows moccachino out of the cafe door. Kevin Costner built a baseball field in his farm when told by ghostly voices in ‘Field of Dreams’, “build it and they will come”. He built it, they came, but it was just a film. You cannot play fast and loose with public money. It is not appropriate to say that because we have got £4million from a national grant, we need to bend over backwards to match it at a time of financial turmoil, moving money away from education, adult social services and reserves to fill the gap.

If the project falls short of its income target by 20%, the Council will have to find £95,000 each year to keep the place open. The conditions of the grant mean that if the Council sell the building or change its use in the next twenty years, we may need to pay the £4million back. Councillors always have to balance risk. We are still £5.5million light after taking a Treasury management risk in lending the money to an Icelandic bank. This is a risk too far at the wrong time. The business plan is fanciful at best. In order to find 40,000 children to turn up to pay for the building, a massive proportion of children from South East England will have to come.

According to figures contained in the business plan, there are an average of 33,900 children in each year group in schools within the target area of a 1 hour drive of Sutton. The centre is aimed at Years 6 and 8 meaning a total target market of 67,800. The centre needs 40,000 children to come which is 59% market penetration. In order to do this, the plan only allows for a paltry marketing budget of £5000 and £1300 stationery. This does not stack up well amongst organisations with a touch more experience and know-how as this list showing their percentage of their respective markets shows.

  • Starbucks 16%
  • Tesco 30%
  • Barack Obama 53%
  • BBC Radio 54%
  • Apple iPod 70%
  • Microsoft Windows 88%

Since, the Sutton Life Centre is pitching comfortably above the most popular man on the planet, the assumptions surely need at least a cursory second glance from someone independant and with something approaching a business brain. The G20 won’t be swooping down to the Holiday Inn working how to bail us out if things go awry. Let’s get it right now.

At least the Executive have had the good sense to bring the decision to a meeting of the Full Council before we did. We had our form ready to call-in the decision but it was not needed as the LibDem councillors realised that pushing this through would be one step too far.

The Full Council meeting is on Monday 27th April starting at 7pm. It is held in the Civic Offices, St Nicholas Way, Sutton, SM1 1EA. You are most welcome to come along and see where your money is going. If you use Facebook, you can add your voice by joining the group Unaffordable: Shelve the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre! and just as importantly, please invite all of your friends to do so. If 3003 people can want Wizard man to switch the Christmas lights on in Sutton, I really hope that a few people are moved enough to try to save a few million quid of taxpayers’ money. The message needs to be sent loud and clear: the public purse, filled with taxpayers’ cash, should not be the plaything of politicians.

Freeze The Tax – Freeze The Life Centre

Freeze The Tax – Freeze The Life Centre

You will have received your Council Tax bill by now, showing another inflation-busting increase. Well, we tried. The only part of our bill set by a Conservative, that of the GLA precept, was frozen by Boris. George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor has pledged to give council’s enough money to freeze council tax if they can peg their increases to less than 2.5%. This is a fair partnership between national and local government; you do your bit and we’ll help. Meanwhile, we sought your views and shared them with the ruling administration.

We believe that Sutton could have joined the thirteen other London Boroughs that are freezing or cutting their tax, helping their residents when they need it most. You can see more on why we believe this is possible and how we could have acheived it without any frontline cuts at the website

Instead, the biggest drain on this coming year’s budget, the £8million Sutton Life Centre is coming up for the go-ahead at tomorrow’s meeting of the Council’s Executive. £4million is coming from a grant from national taxpayers, the other £4million is coming from us directly, here in Sutton. The Council have raided the reserves, taken money originally given to Adult Social Services, delayed repairs to schools and kept unexpected windfalls that you were owed, just to shore up this pet project. I’ve already written about the way that planning was obtained in a hurry. The Executive have had only six days to see the business plan. However, since it only contains six pages of financial information for an operation that is aiming to turnover £3/4million a year, they could come to a conclusion quite quickly.

The clincher is the target market. It is aimed at schoolchildren in years 6 and 8 that are within a 60 minute drive of the site. According to the figures contained within the user profiles in the report, it is safe to say that the Sutton Life Centre needs to attract 60% of the entire population of children in years 6 and 8 living in South London and North Surrey. Not even Bill Gates would attempt market penetration of that kind within a 12 month period. They are helped by the fact that they will stop the existing Junior Citizenship programme thus forcing local schoolchildren to go to the new building or miss out. The fact that the existing scheme costs schools £3 per pupil and the new one £9 per pupil suggests that schools are going to be out of pocket again because of the Local Authority.

The charge of £9 is another optimistic assumption. According to the report, there is one place in the country vaguely comparable situated in Milton Keynes. Sutton’s business plan requires twice the number of visitors paying a higher price simply to break even. I suspect that tomorrow night, the LibDems will be leaving their legacy to the people of Sutton. The likely £95k per year needed to keep the place open with just a 20% shortfall in income will provide 95,000 reasons why not to vote LibDem at the next local elections.

Freeze The Tax – Freeze The Life Centre

Council Pulls A Fast One Over £8m Pet Project

Sutton’s Liberal Democrat town hall bosses pushed through planning permission for the controversial £8million ‘Sutton Life Centre’ last week, following two planning committee meetings. Conservatives have raised severe concerns about the planning suitability of the ‘pet project’ as well as the cost, which has been labelled a “financial minefield”. Approval came at a second hearing after an initial attempt to ram it through late at night at the end of the first meeting.

At the meeting of the Development Control Committee, Conservative councillors questioned the suitability of building the Life Centre adjacent to Sutton Cemetery and Crematorium; the impact on traffic and congestion in the local area; the environmental impact of upwards of 1000 coaches coming to the area; the inconsistent number of visitors due to come to the Centre; and the inevitable noise and light pollution which will emanate from the site, causing disruption to local residents.

Committee member Councillor Tony Shields raised concerns about the climbing wall and the flood lighting which will accompany it. He also highlighted the controversy surrounding the disputed figures for visitor numbers to the Life Centre. A briefing sent to councillors in January stating that the Centre is expected to receive 40,000 visitors per year, a figure echoed in the 1997 feasibility study for the project. In contrast, the projected visitor numbers presented to the committee suggested only 21,000 visitors.

Scant notice was paid to the section of the report which explained that the Life Centre would be available to the public for private hire in the evenings and the problems in Alcorn Close, Barrington Road, Sherborne Road and Thompson Close which will follow.

Conservative Deputy Leader Tony Shields commented: “The Lib Dem-run Council has practically done nothing to consult local people. Additional and unacceptable pressures will be placed on local residents’ parking. Approximately 1000 coach loads of visitors from all round the South East certainly isn’t very green, is it?

“No one has asked for this controversial £8million pet project. The fact is even it’s major Lib Dem supporters have called this project ‘high risk’. They’re shoving Sutton into a financial minefield in a time of economic crisis. It’s now obvious that they haven’t got a clue how many people are going to visit the Centre. The project has been granted permission based on 21,000 visitors but they’re going to need 40,000 to keep it open – doubling the impact on the local area.”

Councillor Shields concluded: “Lib Dem town hall bosses must halt this scheme now, while they still can.”