Tennis players in Brighton and Hove were given a reassurance about the future of 68 local courts by a senior councillor yesterday afternoon (Tuesday 17 January).
Gill Mitchell, the deputy leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, spoke in response to a petition from almost 2,000 people presented by Hove Park player Des O’Dell.
Concern has been growing after a proposal to run the courts was drawn up by a local parks league.
Mr O’Dell spoke to councillors about the petition and the future of Brighton and Hove’s tennis courts at a meeting of the council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee at Hove Town Hall.
He said: “We understand that the council is facing deep budget cuts and that difficult decisions need to be made to balance the books.
“We believe, if given the opportunity, the community will step up and help – and they’re more than willing.
“Until a few weeks ago most of the players in Hove Park were unaware of how funding cuts may affect their public courts. It seems that many other tennis users across the city were also unaware.
“We believe that for any proposal to be successful, it is vital it has to have the support of the whole community and to get that support the community needs to be engaged in the process.
“We also believe that the skills, knowledge and expertise exist within the community to come up with innovative solutions that will help everyone.
“We are not aware of any proposal being considered that currently has full community support. Without a viable proposal, courts will quickly become unsafe and will be forced to close.
“The operating model for tennis courts in 2017 remains unclear.
“We are concerned that if the council withdraws its support for booking and payments, there will be no clarity around who has the right to use public courts at certain times. Valuable revenue to support the maintenance and capital investments will be lost.
“We ask that the current system remains in place for 2017 to allow a period of summer consultation – time for the community of tennis users to come together with the council and the LTA to deliver a workable financially viable solution which maintains access to low-cost tennis facilities for all members of the community.”
Councillor Mitchell, who chairs the committee, said: “As the council’s budget reduces and as the demands on our caring services – such as children’s and adult social care and homelessness – significantly increase, this is leading to less money for services that we would like to be able to continue to provide but we don’t receive any specific ring-fenced funding for such as parks and open spaces maintenance and sport subsidy.
“The existing budget – already the second smallest in the council – is already less than adequate. And a sustainable way ahead to protect and hopefully improve these facilities for the future has to be found.
“So across a whole range of council services we are looking at doing things differently. And in terms of our decreasing ability to maintain sport subsidies, the best place to start was to talk directly to the clubs, the players and their governing bodies, giving the full financial picture for each sport including the shortfalls.
“We’ve been very honest and open about that so that everybody gets the full picture. And these discussions have been taking place for over a year.
“In relation to tennis, these discussions last month have produced an outline proposal from the Brighton and Hove tennis league that would enable greater control over the running of the courts by those who use the facilities including looking at how the retention of the revenue raised from tennis can potentially be kept by the league or by the clubs themselves.
“There are areas that need to be clarified within this proposal – and officers, the league and the Lawn Tennis Association are meeting to ensure that there is enough detail in the proposal for tennis players in the city to know what it means for them before again meeting with the tennis clubs to get their feedback on it.
“This will then be presented to councillors on this committee to decide whether it is something that can be accepted.
“This does have to be a careful and a collaborative process and is not something that can be achieved overnight.
“Officers are also exploring whether there is any opportunity to use planning gain money available for the area around Hove Park to draw in additional external funding. We have recently used this approach very successfully at the Hove Recreation Ground rugby pitches and the velodrome at Preston Park.
“It isn’t practical for officers to discuss these proposals with every single individual user of the council’s sports facilities.
“For tennis facilities, we are aiming to discuss them with representatives of all the clubs that use the facilities, any coaches booking the facilities and the sport’s governing body.
“I am aware that concerns have been raised about a club at Hove Park that was not being involved and I can assure you that they are now involved and will be invited to meetings of the city’s clubs.
“Officers and the LTA will next be meeting with the Brighton and Hove tennis league in the first week of February to review a hopefully more detailed proposal prior to sharing it with clubs.
“So this is an ongoing collaborative process. I appreciate it is difficult for us to reach out to every single player and to have individual conservations.
“But I can assure you we will do all we can to make sure that a proposal, when it is arrived at … and potentially it could come forward to councillors for approval … I will make sure that we do our utmost to ensure that all tennis players are aware of it.
“I hope that does give you some reassurance.”
Mr O’Dell said: “The parks leagues – as an organisation that would take over the management of 68 tennis courts – they have no experience of that type of model. They run a league.
“I think it’s very risky to accept that proposal.
“If you take Hove Park, for example, they represent only 25 per cent of the income that comes into Hove Park so 75 per cent of the income is not represented. There are four other clubs there.
“A lot of the clubs that play in the parks leagues are not properly constituted. They don’t have proper committees. They don’t have rules. They don’t have inclusiveness. They don’t have policies and procedures for children and equality and diversity.
“If these are the organisations that the courts are going to be passed over to, it does put the whole structure at risk.
“I’ve been speaking to people in Rottingdean who no one collects any money off to play on their courts. And they are saying, we don’t pay but we’d be more than happy to pay. We could get together with the parish council and we could look after our own court.
“There are little pockets like Patcham where people play regularly and there are good communities that could come together.
“All we are asking is to give us a period to create community hubs with each of the parks and perhaps an umbrella organisation to give out guidance to help those parks come together.
“But by adopting just the parks league proposal, it does limit the chances of success.”
Councillor Mitchell said: “Officers are meeting with a representative of Rottingdean Parish Council either this week or next in relation to the courts.”
She said that they were also meeting with a local community group too and added: “We are trying to cover all of the bases and you’ve made some very pertinent points. I hope that we can maintain the dialogue.”
Conservative councillor Tony Janio said: “I’m just pleading that the dialogue continues. I hope officers will listen not just to the official representatives.”
The committee also agreed to continue with the wider strategy for parks and open spaces.
Several councillors praised the assistant director for environmental management Richard Bradley and his colleague Ian Shurrock for a detailed report.
Conservative Lee Wares also praised the consultation – the council’s “big conversation” – about the future of parks and open spaces.
Councillor Wares added though that the 3,000 responses still represented just over 1 per cent of the local population.
He and his colleagues called for the consultation to continue as various proposals were worked up and this was agreed by all parties.
One councillor said after the meeting that this was just the start of a long process of trying to help local people to take much greater responsibility for their local parks, open spaces and sports facilities.
They would need support but the committee and the officers were trying to ensure that any changes would be sustainable.
First published in Brighton and Hove News on Wednesday 18th January