Did £300,000 intended for Brentwood Centre “disappear”?

A councillor has called for an investigation into “rumours” that hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment intended for the Brentwood Centre has gone missing.

Discussing the future of the centre on Tuesday March 9, Councillor Barry Aspinall told the borough council’s community and health committee there were “accusations flying around” that £300,000 earmarked for “investment in the infrastructure” had disappeared.

Cllr Aspinall’s comments came as the authority prepared medium and long-term options for the centre, following the insolvency of Brentwood Leisure Trust in November.

The Brentwood Centre is currently managed directly by Brentwood Borough Council which appointed The Sports Consultancy to look at the procurement routes that are available to them.

The Sports Consultancy report – presented at last Tuesday’s committee meeting – lists a series of criticisms of how the centre has been run, including the income from swimming being rated as poor, at 25 per cent below average, and income per visit being rated at 18 per cent below average benchmark.

A statement as part of the consultancy’s report to the council read: “In general, we would have expected income generation to have been higher for a facility which enjoys the benefit of a relatively strong demographic catchment.

“We expect the reasons for this relatively poor performance to be a combination of the quality of the facility and the lack of operating focus by the BLT management, particularly in relation to sports and leisure.

“For example, anecdotally we understand that there were only 290 direct debit members as of March 2020, suggesting that the majority of members were still paying their monthly subscriptions by cash or card.

“For a facility of this scale we would expect there to be around 2,000 direct debit members, which would be significantly higher if the quality of the centre were brought up to good industry standards, depending on the competitive environment.”

Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Aspinall called for further investigation into what had gone on.

He said: “There are accusations flying around that money has gone missing – £300,000 – allegedly given by our promoters to the management for investment in the infrastructure.

“Now that company report that we’ve had done clearly states that the place is a sham.

“It’s in a shambles, it’s shabby and there’s no sign of any refurbishment going on so someone somewhere has had that money away if that money was indeed given.

“Firstly, I believe we need to establish whether that money was actually handed over – is there any proof of that? And if there is then I believe this is something that is beyond our investigation but it’s a matter for the police.”

Addressing the meeting, Councillor Vicky Davies said: “I really feel that we deserve an answer as to where this all went wrong and who’s culpable in that and I don’t mean this is a political issue. I’m talking about the management levels, I’m talking about the individuals who I think at some point should have come forward within the trust and put their hands up and said ‘look you know, there is a problem’.”

She added: “I do hope that whatever investigations are made that it does fully use the documentation made by an independent body.

“This is not us saying it, this is an independent body coming out and saying basically they were just doing it on the back of a fag packet with the calculations and it’s almost like my worst fears are realised.”

Councillor Cliff Poppy, who is in charge of leisure strategy in the borough, added: “I don’t believe in a million years that anyone from the trust is ever going to come in with their hands up and go: ‘We messed this up.’

“We as a council let ourselves down as well in terms of the fact that we were the landlords we should have been doing more and we didn’t.

“That’s a resources problem, that’s a lot of different problems and that’s why I say it’s not it’s not political because we’ve probably all been on a committee somewhere  where we’ve probably voted something through from the Brentwood Centre and so we’re all we’re all kind of part of the part of the problem.”

But he added: “I don’t know about the rumours.”

The council’s chief executive Jonathan Stephenson said the authority was not aware of evidence of criminality.

Referring to the matter at a meeting of ordinary council on Wednesday, March 10, he said: “Any criminal activity needs to be reported to the police, so if there is anybody who has any evidence or information I would expect them to do that.

“We are not aware of any evidence or information – otherwise we would have done that ourselves as a council and, if anything comes from the review that brings in information of that kind, would go to the police.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter