The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs C complains the Council failed to consult her and other hirers of a leisure centre about the decision it made to permanently close an access door to the centre. We have been unable to find fault in the Council’s decision making.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs C, complains a leisure centre funded by the Council decided to close a main access door to the centre’s facilities without consulting those who hire the AstroTurf pitch and the tennis courts.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered Mrs C’s complaint and the information she provided.
- I considered the information I received from the Council in response to my enquiries.
- Mrs C and the Council were given the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I considered Mrs C’s comments and the information she submitted from those with an interest in this matter. The Council advised it had no comments to make in response to the draft decision.
What I found
- Mrs C was a member of a sports club that hires the AstroTurf at the leisure centre. There are several other sports clubs who also hire the AstroTurf and the tennis courts. Both the AstroTurf and the tennis courts are located at the rear of the leisure centre. There is a door at the rear of the centre the outdoor clubs use to access the facilities within the leisure centre.
- In July 2019, the leisure centre closed the rear door and made it a fire exit. In August 2019, the Council advised those who hire the facilities at the leisure centre about the closure of the rear door.
- Mrs C and the representatives from other clubs who hire the outdoor facilities were unhappy they were not consulted about the decision to close this door. Mrs C says the closure of this door has forced those using the outdoor facilities to leave the premises, walk along a public footpath and re-enter the leisure centre at the front of the building to use the changing rooms, toilets and cafe.
- The Council advised Mrs C it was undertaking extensive building work in the leisure centre over the next six to eight months and therefore the corridor and the door would remain closed.
- Mrs C wanted clarification on whether the closure of the door was a temporary or permanent measure. She says she was refused a meeting with the Council so she contacted her local councillors. Mrs C and representatives from other outdoor clubs relayed their concerns to their local councillor who arranged a meeting with the Council. She also organised a petition for the re-opening of the door that was signed by 282 people.
- The meeting was arranged for 18 December 2019. The purpose of the meeting was for the Council to listen to the concerns the representatives of the sports clubs had, to discuss possible solutions and to understand the roles and responsibilities of the leisure provider and the hiring groups.
- The Council advised the attendees of the meeting the closure of the rear door of the leisure centre was permanent. Mrs C felt the Council was not listening to the representatives of the sports clubs and the council officers were merely reiterating that the door was permanently shut and would not be re-opened.
- Mrs C felt her concerns were not taken seriously so she submitted a complaint to the Council.
- The Council explained the decision to close the rear door was made to maintain a single point of entry to the building to improve security and safeguarding. The decision was also made due to planned building work. The Council confirmed there was no consultation with the sports clubs as it was an operational matter.
- The Council said it acknowledged those using the outdoor facilities now have to walk to the front door and this would take additional time but it was reviewing plans to provide a footpath around the perimeter of the leisure centre which would shorten the distance.
- The Council also clarified in its response that it is the responsibility of clubs hiring the facilities to have the appropriate level of administration in place to supervise children during the activities and in the event they need to access the indoor facilities.
- Mrs C was unhappy with the Council’s response and submitted a stage 2 complaint. Mrs C said the decision has an impact on those users with disabilities who rely on access to the toilets. She also said it has impacted on their access to the defibrillator.
- The Council said it had reviewed the complaint and the background information. It understood that users of the leisure centre are impacted by the change in routine but it found that the operational decision was an acceptable change to the running of the centre.
- Mrs C remained unhappy with the Council’s decision and brought her complaint to the Ombudsman.
The Council’s complaint handling
- Mrs C also complained about the Council’s complaint handling. Mrs C was unable to submit her complaint on the Council’s website due to a technical error so she emailed it to the Council. Mrs C’s email was acknowledged, given a reference number and the technical error was reported to the appropriate department. There were also some delays in the Council sending its stage 1 and stage 2 responses to Mrs C. Although the Council did not contact Mrs C and provide her with timescales, it did apologise and explain it was due to a change in staffing and job roles. I acknowledge it may have been frustrating not to receive a response sooner, however, I do not consider it caused significant injustice.
- Mrs C and the representatives from the sports clubs who use the outdoor facilities at the leisure centre have booking agreements in place. The terms and conditions of the booking agreements do not stipulate the Council is required to consult with hirers before making any decisions regarding operational changes within the leisure centre and its outdoor facilities. The booking agreements do not stipulate any agreed routes either. Therefore, I have not found any evidence of fault in the Council’s decision making.
- Mrs C says the sports clubs have not had sight of the booking conditions and this suggests maladministration and service failure. I have seen two booking forms signed by representatives of the sports club Mrs C represents. The signatures demonstrate an agreement to abide by the terms and requirements of the Council’s conditions of hire.
- Mrs C states the facilities the clubs agreed to hire have changed permanently and it affects the safe running of the clubs. The booking agreements are for a series of lets of the AstroTurf pitch, they do not relate to the use of the indoor facilities. There is no evidence the sports club Mrs C represents has any agreement in place for the club to use the indoor facilities. The Council has explained the use of the facilities has not changed. The Council has confirmed the hire agreements are for the outdoor areas but it has permitted the use of the indoor facilities when they are available. The outdoor clubs can still access the toilets, changing rooms and the defibrillator in the leisure centre.
- The responsibility of the clubs supervising children when on site also remains the same. The clubs have safeguarding duties and these do not change with the closure of the rear door. Mrs C has stated the closure has a detrimental impact on disabled users of the centre. The Council reiterates that access to the facilities is not restricted for any of the users of the centre. It also highlighted that the rear door previously used is not wheelchair friendly and it is a fire exit. Whereas the main door all users are now required to use is wheelchair friendly.
- Mrs C says the decision to close the rear door without consultation with those who use the door is in breach of the Council’s Equality and Diversity Policy and it has discriminated against those with incontinence issues and children who may need quicker access to the toilets in the leisure centre. I have seen no evidence of the Council discriminating against a particular group of people or people with disabilities. As mentioned previously, the sports club Mrs C is representing has hired the AstroTurf and the Council allow the sports club to use the indoor facilities, such as the toilets, when they are available. If the hirers want to use the indoor facilities, they can. The front door is open for all users of the leisure centre, including the hirers of the outdoor facilities. The rear door is closed to all users of the leisure centre and is now a fire exit, also for all users. Therefore, there is no evidence the Council’s decision to close the rear door is discriminatory as Mrs C suggests. If Mrs C believes the hirers have been discriminated against, she has the option to make a claim for damages in a county court.
- Mrs C is unhappy the Council initially decided the closure of the rear door would be a temporary measure but it then changed its decision and made it a permanent closure. The Council says the door was closed as a temporary measure in relation to works that were to be carried out. However, due to a number of issues such as schoolchildren using the door as a cut through, issues with unauthorised access, vandalism and access not being monitored resulted in the operational decision that the door remain closed permanently. The Council says the rear door being closed is consistent with its other leisure centres and also with the standard across other leisure facilities.
- I acknowledge the change in routine is frustrating and inconvenient in comparison to how it was previously but there is no evidence of fault in the Council’s decision making. It was entitled to make the decision to make the rear door a fire exit and it was entitled to make the decision without consulting the hirers. However, the Council has advised there is an agreed scheme of works for a footpath around the perimeter of the leisure centre to access the main entrance which will shorten the distance. The Council says there is a delay in implementing this due to COVID-19 but once a budget for this work has been agreed the scheme of works will be carried out.
- The Council made a decision it was entitled to make. It is not fault that it did not consult with Mrs C before making the decision. Therefore, I have completed my investigation and closed this complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman