Council chiefs said they will be listening to local people as the £45million plans for a hospital and leisure centre in Berwick develop.
This major investment in the town has been long awaited. However, the news that the NHS and Northumberland County Council are moving ahead with an integrated health and leisure development on the site of the Swan Centre in Tweedmouth has sparked a backlash.
A poll on a new Facebook page, A Better Hospital for Berwick, suggests the majority of hundreds of respondents are opposed to the proposal.
And critics had shared their views with members of Northumberland County Council’s corporate services scrutiny committee, who discussed the development this morning and sought assurances on their behalf.
The Swan Centre proposal – £27million for the hospital/health services and £18million for a new leisure centre – has been approved by Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust and Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).
Following the scrutiny committee’s input today, it will go before Northumberland County Council’s cabinet for approval next Monday (September 10) at a meeting which will be held in the Swan Centre at 10am and is open to the public.
This morning’s meeting focused on the leisure centre, while tomorrow’s health and wellbeing committee will talk about the hospital, although it was pointed out that this was the health trust’s decision and the council had simply offered the site as one of the options.
Council leader Peter Jackson said: “I can’t speak for them, but it’s about delivery, because this site is council land and we can get on with it once planning permission is granted. We could talk about other sites across Berwick for another 10 or 20 years.”
Opening the discussion, he said: “So often Berwick has felt the forgotten town and we are determined to make up for the past couple of decades when next to nothing has happened in that community.
“We are determined this gets built as soon as possible and to the best standard possible.”
Coun Cath Homer, cabinet member for leisure, offered assurances that this was the beginning of the process and that the people of Berwick would be listened to, on top of the consultations already carried out by the council and the NHS.
“The Swan Centre is an ageing leisure centre in Active Northumberland’s portfolio, dating back to the early 1990s,” she said. “The backlog of maintenance and various add-ons have led to it being the worst-performing centre in the portfolio.
“It’s also about extending tourism, providing wet-weather alternatives which are sadly lacking in Berwick at the moment, and it meets the council’s objectives of linking health, wellbeing and being active.”
One of the committee members, Coun Gregah Roughead, is the ward member for Berwick West with Ord.
“People welcome the investment, but they are not sold on the co-location,” he said. “Berwick cynicism is that nothing happens, let’s wait and see until there are spades in the ground.”
Responding to concerns about the loss of services, the new chief executive of Active Northumberland, Mark Tweedie, told councillors that there would be no loss of services at the leisure centre and the aim was to enhance what was on offer.
For example, he said he had been in talks with Berwick Academy, whose artificial pitch needs replacing, about the future provision of this facility for the town.
Coun Gordon Castle said: “Objectors often make the most noise but the least sense and I’m still not actually sure what their key objections are. But we are not approving this, just saying we can move forward on these proposals.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service