Pledge to investigate former management of Brentwood Leisure Trust

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Brentwood Borough Council has pledged to investigate the former management of the Brentwood Leisure Trust.

Losses accrued by The Brentwood Centre are expected to leave taxpayers as much as £500,000 out of pocket.

The centre in Pilgrims Hatch closed on October 28 – threatening almost 140 jobs – after a deal to keep solvent its operator the Brentwood Leisure Trust (BLT) was rejected by Brentwood Borough Council when the trust realised it could not meet its payroll obligations for October.

It came after a request by the trust for further funding from the council – already owed £343,000 – was rejected. This debt has been written off in the end of year 2020/21 accounts.

The coronavirus crisis has badly affected the centre’s finances and the council – which has taken the operation back in house – now faces a £500,000 deficit that it will have to honour for 2021/22.

It means that over a 12-month period The Brentwood Centre may cost taxpayers around £850,000.

Since taking back The Brentwood Centre, the council has had to endure essential compliance costs on the property in order to bring it back to an acceptable standard, as well as staff the centre and manage general operational running costs.

The state of the building is said to have shocked councillors after a visit to the centre in November. Concerns included serious lapses in the fire safety regime. It has since been revealed that other buildings administered by BLT have had major health failures, including episodes of Legionella.

At a meeting of Brentwood Borough Council’s community and health committee on Monday June 28, Liberal Democrat councillor, Vicky Davies, who sits on the borough council’s community and health committee, said: “Concerns obviously were raised with the Legionella in Bishops Hall Park, which again to me is an indication of how poor Brentwood Leisure Trust management was that they had allowed that to happen without regular monitoring of the water system there.

“So basically – one question is about the halls.

“Secondly, obviously you’re talking about a half a million pound deficit – which I’m not surprised – but do we have any ideas of how we’re going to narrow that gap other than appointing a contractor? Because that’s quite a lot of money to find.

“And lastly, I know it says under item 20 on 545 that there is going to be a working group under audit and scrutiny committee and it mentions various things are going to be looked into.

“When is this going to happen? How far into this process are they going to take into account the liabilities of those that were running it because there were certain aspects of that hall – when we saw it – that were illegal. Is there no come back on people from that point of view?”

Councillor Cliff Poppy, chair of health and community, said that this was an issue for audit and scrutiny.

Councillor Barry Aspinell, who sits on the same panel, added: “I was horrified with the state of the place, as well as the flagrant abuse of the fire safety equipment and the escapes from the centre and the prevention alarms that were disabled it got into that position because someone somewhere took me their eye off the ball.”

He continued: “Unless the right questions are asked and there is the willingness for that to be asked then it won’t be. We’re a year on now and nothing has happened.

“I’d like an assurance that this council is committed to find out what went wrong and who is involved and why these things happened.”

In response, Cllr Poppy said to Cllr Aspinell: “I’ll assure you that I’ll talk to the chair of the audit and scrutiny and I’ll talk to the leader of the council as well in terms of making sure that your fears for that side of things, this the second part of your conversation are adhered to.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter