OPINION: Will Ipswich sports strategy be sunk by politics?

An artist's impression of the new aquatics centre at Portman Road car park

Has the proposal to build a new aquatics centre on Portman Road been delayed by politics? - Credit: IPSWICH BOROUGH COUNCIL

It would be superb news for Ipswich if the borough's plans to build a new aquatic centre on the Portman Road car park site are realised - and even better if they are realised within its target of five years.

But its announcement of a new sports and leisure strategy last week did arrive on my desk with a certain level of deja vu.

As did the suggestions we're starting to hear of the council thinking again about moving sports pitches on the north west of the town from King George V playing field to a new site near the Whitton Sports Centre.

Both of these proposals first came out during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration at the borough between 2004 and 2011. 

The idea of a new swimming pool opposite the football club was also something of a pet project of the late chief executive Jim Hehir - but the scheme had the enthusiastic backing of Tory executive member Judy Terry and council leader Liz Harsant.

Which makes it rather surprising, in a sense, that it's taken the Labour administration at the borough 11 years to realise that.

Also, at the same time the former administration was looking at sports provision in north west Ipswich. What were they considering? You've guessed it!

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What concerns me about both of these proposals is the nagging question at the back of my mind over whether politics has played a large part in the decision-making.

Council leader David Ellesmere told me the borough had looked long and hard before settling on Portman Road as the site for a new aquatics centre.

But I would question why. That site was already identified in 2007. Why go through the whole expensive search process again? Did the borough think the earth's tectonic plates had moved that much over the last 15 years? Did they think someone else wanted to do something else with their land and had not told them about it?

Mr Hehir was a great visionary and was always keen to big up Ipswich when outlining new plans - but he'd always done his homework immaculately before presenting it. You can be sure he'd checked and double-checked the Portman Road proposal before announcing it.

That was 15 years ago. And it probably would need an update before being dusted off the shelf - but to launch a new search for land all over the town seems excessive.

Was it a case that the current Labour administration didn't want to be seen to be giving any credit to the former Tory/LibDem administration for the proposal?

The new sports strategy as it stands today does look good. A new aquatics centre would be great and Crown Pools is showing its age. A total rebuild of Gainsborough would also be a massive boost for the east of the town.

But as someone who remembers the agonies we went through over the £3.5 (or £4m if you prefer) revamp of the Cornhill, the idea of completing a £60m revamp of the town's major leisure resources in five years seems mightily optimistic.

What also worries me is that other, smaller, projects that would mean a lot to particular communities might get sidetracked or delayed as all efforts are concentrated on the "big picture".

I don't think the Broomhill pool campaigners have too much to worry about - that is now firmly a Fusion Lifestyle project with borough support rather than being driven by Grafton House.

But smaller projects - like the proposal to turn the old Whitehouse Park toilets into a community facility - seem to be stuck in the bureaucracy somewhat.

Whitehouse Park toilets

Local campaigners want to take over the redundant toilets at Whitehouse Park and turn them into a community asset. - Credit: Paul Geater

That is a small scheme which probably would not need any capital investment and would save the council the cost of demolition - but it sounds as if getting any decision from the council is rather like pushing a feather through treacle.

If this new sports strategy is to really fly it needs the support of everyone - whatever their politics. And in an area like Ipswich where party politics is currently so toxic, it is difficult to see all sides coming together on something like this.