Foul, Ref!

Dacorum Borough Council doesn't give safety a sporting chance

As a user of the swimming pool at Berkhamsted Sports Centre, the athletics track at Jarman Park, Hemel Hempstead, and Butts Meadow in Berkhamsted, I find that the conduct of Dacorum Borough Council staff in managing these facilities is a continual cause for concern.

On numerous occasions I have arrived at the pool for my swim only to find part of it roped off for staff training or private swimming lessons. During school hours this does not normally present a problem, as the number of swimmers is usually relatively low. However, pool space is just as likely to be restricted during school holidays. A large number of swimmers is then obliged to use a smaller area, which can become dangerously crowded. Small children, in particular, are at risk of being kicked by the more serious swimmers.

In my experience, the pool is usually most congested on In-Service Training Days (abbreviated to "Inset" days) which most state schools hold on the first Monday after a holiday. The teachers return to school on an Inset day for training, but the pupils do not go back until the following day.

The first day of a five-day staff training course has been held on an Inset day on at least two occasions. A third of the pool was closed to the public, for the benefit of only five members of staff. Considerable inconvenience was caused to swimmers. Had the training been scheduled for the following week, when there were five school days, there would not have been a problem.

If restrictions on pool space were advertised in advance, swimmers would be able to avoid the times at which the pool was most likely to be crowded. Unfortunately, I have never yet found a daytime pool space restriction advertised in advance.

The reception staff do not know what is going on in the pool. On several occasions I have been told on arrival at the sports centre that there were no restrictions on pool space currently in force, only to reach the poolside and find a large proportion of it closed to the public. I have tried to obtain details of restrictions by telephone, but either the telephone not been answered or I have been given wrong information.

The only closures I have seen advertised in advance are those at Christmas and New Year. In 2000/2001 these were advertised incorrectly. I arrived for a swim on a day when the pool was supposed to be open, only to be told it was, "Closed for cleaning".

Following a succession of such incidents in 2001, I wrote to the Sports Centre Manager. My letters were fielded by Ruth Barker, Sports Centre Marketing Manager. Instead of dealing with the issues I raised, she adopted the usual tactic of Dacorum Borough Council staff when criticised. She lied. She repeatedly insisted that the restrictions had been advertised in advance, which they had not. She replied to my third letter by telling me to address all further correspondence to the Sports Centre Manager. This was the person to whom I had originally tried to write.

I finally met the Sports Centre Manager, Amanda Colwill, at a public meeting at the sports centre in the Autumn of 2001, and again expressed my concerns. She also insisted that all the restrictions on pool space had been advertised in advance. Not one had. She told me that I was the only one complaining. Another swimmer had previously told me that he had also objected to unadvertised restrictions. When I asked why the receptionists seemed to have no idea what was going on in the pool, she said they did not read the information sheets they were supplied with.

I then asked why staff training took place on school Inset days instead of during term time. Ms. Colwill insisted that training had to take place during the holidays so that sixth-formers could take part. The trainees were the most mature sixth formers I had ever seen. In any case, if the first day of a five-day course takes place on an Inset day, the remaining four are on school days.

A more junior member of staff had previously admitted to me that the sports centre did not intend to hold staff training on Inset days but had no record of when Inset days were due to take place. Receptionists and poolside staff have admitted that nobody tells them what is going on. It is unfortunate that Ruth Barker and Amanda Colwill are not so honest.

When I experienced further problems in 2002 I e-mailed Councillor Julian Taunton, the Dacorum Borough Council cabinet member who held the Community and Leisure portfolio. He complained that I had not given the sports centre staff a chance to deal with my complaints before contacting him. Pardon me, Councillor Taunton, but I gave the staff every chance.

Unadvertised restrictions on pool space have continued. In October 2002 a third of the pool was roped off to accommodate scuba divers. Poolside staff admitted they had no idea anything unusual was going on until the divers turned up.

Dacorum Athletics Track provides a useful alternative to running on hard roads or muddy fields, but it is also used by poorly supervised groups of children. Some of these are school parties, while others are school holiday activities organised by Dacorum Borough Council. Children are allowed to wander away from the organised activities, misuse the equipment and cause danger to themselves and other track users. They often start informal games of football on the track, and while chasing the ball they get in the way of adult runners. Sprinters training on the track approach, and may well exceed, twenty miles per hour - faster than the traffic in many residential streets. A collision between a sprinter and a child at that speed would have a similar effect to the child being hit by a car.

In the Summer of 2000, a sprinter and a child did collide at speed on a London track. Both were knocked unconscious and taken to hospital with fractures.

I have also seen children running across the in-field (the grassed area inside the track), which is strictly against the rules. They were fortunate that no hammers, discus or javelins were being thrown at the time.

I try to avoid training at times when the track is being used by groups of children, but the staff usually give me incorrect information about the dates and times that children's sessions are going to take place. On one such day, a Friday, I had been told that there was no booking until 1 p.m. I arrived at 11 a.m. to find the session already in progress. While trying to run I was impeded four times by boys chasing footballs across the track. Children also gained access to the public address system, turned it up to full volume and shouted into it. Others bounced on the high-jump bed (the mattress which jumpers land on) as though it were a trampoline.

I contacted Councillor Taunton about being given wrong information, and about children misusing the facilities. He passed my complaint on to Hemel Hempstead Sports Centre Manager Rebecca Hemmant. In her reply, Ms. Hemmant tried to insist that track staff had given me the correct information about bookings because the staff member who had taken my call interpreted my use of the term "Party booking" to mean a children's party. In reality she had no way of knowing what I said over the telephone. In fact I never used the term "Party booking", and the children's party was booked for Saturday, not Friday. She wrote that, "Safety is of course of paramount importance and I will investigate and resolve the other issues you have mentioned". On subsequent visits I have again had to dodge children kicking footballs around on the track, seen them running across the in-field, using the high jump bed as a trampoline and taking sand from the long jump pits and spreading it across the track.

Ms. Hemmant concluded her e-mail, "If you would like to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to contact me again". I did contact her again, and received no reply.

Training on the track in St. Albans, about six miles further away from where I live, has proved rather more satisfactory. It takes longer to get there, costs more, and, being older and more worn, the track is harder. However, it is possible to run there in relative safety.

Butts Meadow is a small recreation ground in Berkhamsted, bequeathed by the widow of a local landowner for the enjoyment of the public. Much of the available space is taken up by a football pitch, which is home to Gossoms End Football Club and is used by several other teams. The pitch wears considerably in the course of a season. Unfortunately, damage is also caused by Dacorum Borough Council staff driving heavy vehicles across the pitch in order to save themselves the effort of walking a few yards. On several occasions I have seen a pickup truck being driven across the pitch in the course of emptying the litter bins which surround Butts Meadow. The vehicle could be left on nearby hard standing and the rubbish carried by hand or by wheelbarrow. The staff who erected the goalposts at the start of the 2002/3 and 2003/4 seasons also drove and parked on the pitch to avoid having to carry the posts and the cross bars to the appropriate places.

I have written to Berkhamsted's Conservative councillors on several occasions, but only once received a reply - a typical ticking off for being rude about council employees. Councillors either ignore complaints about council staff, or give the staff uncritical support.

A local resident, whose late father used to unload sacks from a lorry, asked: "Whatever is wrong with men's muscles these days?" I suspect that nothing is wrong with men's muscles these days. Suitably trained, they are as good as they ever were. The problem is the culture of local government, which encourages staff laziness and irresponsibility.

A footballer playing in a five-a-side game at Berkhamsted Sports Centre has already successfully claimed compensation from Dacorum Borough Council for injuries sustained when he collided with a boundary wall. When I last heard, a footballer was considering suing the council over an ankle injury he sustained while playing on an uneven pitch in the village of Chipperfield.

Local sportsmen will continue to suffer injuries as a result of Dacorum Borough Council's lax attitude to safety. It is the taxpayer, not the council staff, who will pay. When it happens, remember this article.

Staff from Dacorum Borough Council's sports centres held a party at the Holiday Inn in Hemel Hempstead on Saturday 23rd. November 2002. They were asked to leave by the hotel management after some of those attending smashed glasses and caused offence to other hotel guests. Police were called to a brawl outside involving about thirty people. Dacorum Borough Council spokeswoman Sarah Scott blamed the problem on "Possible gatecrashers". She would say that, wouldn't she? As we all know, Dacorum Borough Council staff are never wrong.

Letter to the Daily Telegraph published on 7th. January 2004.
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