A move to significantly increase a charitable trust’s funding from taxpayers to run the only swimming pool in a 1,319sq km district has been approved despite uncertainty surrounding how the money will be spent.
A meeting of Richmondshire District Council’s corporate board also heard its decision to increase Richmondshire Leisure Trust’s subsidy for running Richmond pool by 20 per cent to £313,000 a year was likely to be challenged by North Yorkshire County Council.
While the government has given the county authority the right to approve or deny major funding decisions ahead of a unitary council being launched next year, Richmondshire council’s leader Councillor Angie Dale told the meeting she would be “more than happy” to defend the spending decision if challenged.
She said it had been estimated it would cost £500,000 a year for the council to run the pool, adding: “We are getting a good deal for swimming in Richmondshire.”
The £50,000 annual funding increase was approved by the narrowest of margins 17 years after the trust was established to run the pool more cost effectively and seek other funding sources.
The proposal comes a year after the council’s chairman used his casting vote to approve using one third of the authority’s annual council tax income, some £1.4 million, into the pool’s first major renovation in two decades.
It also follows the Local Government Association and UK Active, an association representing leisure centres and gyms, stating in April that energy costs issue were “driving decisions about facility closures or reduced opening hours”.
However, the corporate board meeting was told the Richmond pool had struggled financially since having its council grant halved in 2012, after which the trust had been unable to build a surplus to exist make the pool a viable concern, forcing it to repeatedly go “cap in hand” to the council for extra funding.
Councillors heard to resolve the underlying funding issue exacerbated by the pandemic and cost of living crisis, the trust had asked the council to up its annual grant to £313,000, without providing details of how the funding would be spent.
In addition, the committee agreed £65,000 should be given to the trust to cover its lost income while the revamp is completed, meaning the small council was set to pour a total of about £3 million into the pool.
Conservative group leader Councillor Yvonne Peacock told the meeting while there was widespread support for supporting swimming elected members were being left in the dark over where the public money was going.
She said while parish councils had been asked to jump through “tremendous hoops” for £2,000 platinum jubilee grants, but the council was set to spend £3 million on revamping and subsidising the pool and the trust would face no accountability.
The Green Party and Independent councillor Leslie Rowe said in the year to March last year the trust had received £69,000 of rate relief alongside £57,000 of Covid support, which led to a surplus of £162,000.
He said: “If an additional £50,000 a year is needed, surely that should be backed up by a business plan?”
“The other people who they are supposed to be going cap in hand to is the lottery and other charities. That was the whole point in them becoming a trust in the first place.”
Officers said as part of the five-year funding agreement the trust had agreed to annually answer councillors’ questions and had also been given a 20-year lease on the building on a peppercorn rent.
Ahead of the funding being approved, the council’s operational services spokesman Councillor Richard Good said: “If we are going to spend all that money refurbishing it there’s no point in doing that if we’re not going to support them when they continue.”