Leith Waterworld: Soft play plan ‘kick in teeth’

A campaign to save, and later reopen, Leith Waterworld has been ongoing. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

A campaign to save, and later reopen, Leith Waterworld has been ongoing. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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COUNCIL chiefs were today accused of delivering “a real kick in the teeth” to the community after agreeing to sell Leith Waterworld to a private developer for £1 million.

The Labour-SNP administration had been working with local group Splashback on plans to reopen the leisure pool and had previously set a December deadline to agree a scheme.

But after an unsolicited bid to buy the venue and turn it into a soft play centre, council leaders have decided to pull the plug on the community plans and sell the building to Glasgow-based A&G Property Group. The move, due to be approved at a full council meeting today, will be accompanied by a pledge of £125,000 for free swimming initiatives for primary age children across the city.

Splashback today issued a statement saying they were “angry and dismayed” that the council had decided to abandon its commitment given in January to work with them on reviving Waterworld.

“The trust we placed in the council that day has been broken,” the group said. “We are heartbroken that despite our best efforts we have not been able to save the pool.”

Splashback claimed “significant progress” had been made towards reopening the venue.

The statement added: “We do not believe the bid accepted by the council is the best deal for Leith, for families, children, the disabled or the local community. Soft play delivers negligible health and wellbeing benefits.”

Chas Booth, Green councillor for Leith, said: “This is a real kick in the teeth for the local community and sends a message to community groups that they cannot trust a word this council says.” He said this had been the first major test of the administration’s “co-operative council” agenda, trying to involve local people in provision of services at the grassroots. He said: “The coalition has failed that test.”

Cllr Booth added: “To soften the blow by diverting the money which would have been invested in reopening the pool into primary age swimming instead is an attempt to hide the council’s embarrassment at this decision. It will not compensate for the massive loss of amenity that will result from Waterworld’s closure.”

Culture and sport convener Richard Lewis said it had been a difficult decision and one the council did not take lightly. He said: “I’d like to thank Splashback for the work and commitment they have demonstrated in

progressing the community bid. However, this coalition feels that the potential purchaser will create a high quality leisure facility that will greatly benefit the community in Leith and the wider Edinburgh area.”

The council put the cost of keeping Waterworld vacant at £154,000 a year – £121,000 in non-domestic rates and the rest in utility and security costs.

A&G Property Group, which already has three similar venues in the west of Scotland, has said it will invest

£1.3 million in fitting out Waterworld to provide a crèche/nursery and soft play centre. It plans to open the venue 12 to 14 hours per day, seven days a week and create a total of 88 jobs – supervisors, catering, office and other staff. It expects 3500 children a week will visit the facility and forecasts an annual turnover of £1.8m.

The council said clauses in the sale agreement would ensure the proposed facility was created within a specified timescale and guard against it being sold on to another developer for a different use.

Edinburgh Leisure has plans to turn Portobello Indoor Bowls and Leisure Centre into a gymnastics hub and soft play centre. A&G is said to have known of the proposal and not felt there was any conflict.

Leith Community Council secretary Roland Reid said the decision to sell Waterworld was disappointing. He said: “The council invested a lot in Leith Victoria baths, but that’s primarily for adults.”

Lothian Green MSP Alison Johnstone said families across the city had made it clear they valued Waterworld as a unique leisure pool.

She said: “This decision sends the worst possible message to communities trying to come together to protect services and improve facilities in their area. Despite all the warm words on community empowerment and people power, when a developer comes along with a wad of cash, community efforts count for little.”

Council leader Andrew Burns insisted the co-operative council agenda was still alive and well despite the Waterworld decision. “I acknowledge the frustration and anger that will be felt by the campaigners. This was a high-profile issue, but there are dozens of other co-operative projects ongoing across the city.”

A blogpost by Cllr Burns on the Waterworld sale attracted a large number of comments, many saying Edinburgh did not need another soft play area but did lack a warm-water

leisure pool. One said: “It is embarrassing that Edinburgh doesn’t have a decent fun pool. We have to travel to East, Mid or West Lothian to get a good warm family pool to take small children swimming.”

Another observed: “The new Commonwealth Pool is a joke with no shallow play space and is stupidly overcrowded.”

Tory group leader Cameron Rose said: “The only responsible option is to sell the premises. The campaign group bid has been an expensive distraction long after the key decisions were taken.”

TIMELINE

May 1992: The £14 million Leith Waterworld opens on the site of the former Leith

Central Station, boasting flumes, geysers, water cannon and wave machines and heralded as a totally new aqua experience for Edinburgh.

February 1996: Closure of the venue is listed among options being considered as part of council cuts, but the move is rejected.

March 1998: Another threat to Waterworld’s future is averted when the Scottish Office agrees the city council can spend more in its overall budget than originally set.

November 1999: Pool has to shut after problems identified during annual maintenance checks.

April 2002: Pool finally reopens after a £270,000 refit and a lengthy legal wrangle with the builders. Opening hours are reduced to three days a week.

September 2005: The city council decides to close Waterworld to help fund refurbishment of the Royal Commonwealth Pool.

November 2011: Splashback formed to save Waterworld from closure after council confirms closure plans.

December 2011: Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and The Proclaimers back the campaign to keep the pool open.

January 2012: Waterworld closes its doors for the last time. Campaigners carry on collecting signatures.

February 2012: Council puts off the sale deadline so a community bid can be put together.

September 2012: Council rejects Splashback bid for the pool, but agrees to help the group develop its proposals further.

January 2013: Against the advice of officials, council agrees Splashback plans should proceed to feasibility phase and to provide £350,000 over three years to reopen the pool.

May 2013: Unsolicited bid from A&G Property Group to buy the venue for

£1 million and turn it into a soft play centre is accepted by the administration.