Hey presto - council ‘too busy’ in JUNE with Covid to tackle future of outdoor leisure centre, suddenly in JULY unveils secret £6m crematorium scheme

PUBLISHED: 16:22 03 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:22 03 August 2020

Corporate director Emma Gima (right) of East Cambs Council with Cllr Charlotte Cane at an online meeting of the council in June. Mepal Outdoor Centre was being discussed. Picture; ARCHANT

Corporate director Emma Gima (right) of East Cambs Council with Cllr Charlotte Cane at an online meeting of the council in June. Mepal Outdoor Centre was being discussed. Picture; ARCHANT

Archant

Just 43 days after Covid 19 was blamed for a delay in preparing options for the future of Mepal Outdoor Centre, a surprise plan to turn it into a £6m crematorium was unveiled.

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant) Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

On June 18, Lib Dem councillor Charlotte Cane raised the future use of the outdoor centre at an assets and finance committee.

“I know it’s been a long and difficult asset to decide how we are going to take it forward,” she explained,

“But the time has come when we as a committee need to take some decisions about it.”

She called for a full report on the structural issues following two fires at the centre and wanted ideas for its future use discussed.

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant) Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

“I do not think is it good for anyone for it to be sitting in limbo any longer,” she said.

Commercial director Emma Grima explained that “some surveys” were being done. These would “hopefully inform an options appraisal.”

But Ms Grima insisted it was not high on the list of priorities “all our work has been focused on Covid in the past few months”.

Mepal “has not been a priority looking at taking forward” she said.

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant) Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

And Ms Grima said she could not commit to a timetable about bring a report back to the committee because of their work elsewhere.

But on Friday a specially convened meeting of the full council agreed to a business plan for a crematorium.

Mepal parish council chairman Brian Rollason later accused the district council of not being transparent about their proposals.

He called it “all cloak and dagger” and added that “the people who foot the bills are walked over and forgotten once again”.

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant) Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

Lib Dem leader Lorna Dupre said she was part of a working party of three councillors set up to consider applications to take on the site for community and leisure use.

She said options were examined but despite a deal looking imminent, nothing came of it.

“Time went on, the deal wasn’t sealed, and it became increasingly clear that it wasn’t going to be,” she said.

“We were not (and still are not) allowed to reveal the name of the successful bidder. And since the failure of those negotiations with the applicant we chose in 2018, nothing happened. Or so we thought.”

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant) Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

She said the answer given on June 23 to the assets committee “simply wasn’t true. For at least six months work had been going on secretly to bring plans together to put a crematorium on the site”.

Cllr Dupre spoke of how “angry and frustrated” both she and a fellow councillor Mark Inskip were about being unable to be open and transparent with our residents about what was being done.

Their battle to get the crematorium debated openly was defeated by sheer weight of numbers, with Conservative councillors forcing the plan through”.

She added: “Why a crematorium? The council’s current Local Plan doesn’t say there is a need for one.

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant) Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

“The replacement Local Plan that should have been adopted before Conservative councillors withdrew it in February 2019 doesn’t mention it either.

“Nor does the council’s corporate plan 2020-2023 which councillors approved only two weeks ago. Nor does the previous version agreed last year.”

She added: “There is no evidence given in any of the council’s strategic documents that East Cambridgeshire actually needs a new crematorium.

“Still less is there any evidence that the Mepal site, just thirteen minutes from a rival crematorium, is the best place for it even if the need were proven.”

Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)Mepal Outdoor Leisure Centre. Aerial views taken on July 31st show the scope and scale of the centre. It also shows some of the damage caused by arson attacks. Picture; TERRY HARRIS (exclusively for Archant)

She added: “And the financial and other information behind this decision is still secret.”

Lib Dem councillor Simon Harries tweeted that “I truly sympathize with officers when placed in an invidious position by the administration.

“But this kind of issue cruelly highlights the dangers of officers and administration becoming so close that you cannot easily tell them apart.”

Council leader Anna Bailey said: “We tried hard to get an operator to take on the site, but having gone out to tender and chosen a contractor, when they did more work on what was required to redevelop the site they couldn’t continue.

“They cited problems with capital costs combined with difficult trading conditions in the leisure industry, and that situation has sadly got a whole lot worse with the onset of Covid.

“We hope the crematorium, woodland burial area and pet cemetery can be a good alternative use that is sensitive to the important wildlife and rich biodiversity that exists on the site.

“We will work up a landscape plan, sensitive to the biodiversity. Development of crematoria are notoriously litigious so we had to get the project to an advanced stage to protect it.”

MP Steve Barclay is withholding judgement on the proposals.

“In respect of Mepal I have written to the council seeking an update and clarification on the proposal and will comment further once I received a response,” he said.


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