I fully appreciate that there is some concern being raised with me as the MP (and as a Haywards Heath resident) within the Mid Sussex constituency regarding the news on Clair Hall. It is reported Mid Sussex District Council (MSDC) have had to consider the long term future of Clair Hall in Haywards Heath due to falling use of this MSDC facility which has been further impacted by Covid 19 and the return of the local MSDC leisure services.
I understand, following my engagement on behalf of constituents with Cllr Jonathan Ash-Edwards as Leader of MSDC, it is at risk in its current form. Clair Hall has been part of the Hayward’s Heath community for over 50 years and many constituents will have fond memories of it, especially at its prime. I have my own happy memories of being at events, shows and children’s parties in this venue so do sympathise with residents who have approached me.
I am advised by the Leader of MSDC, Clair Hall has been one part of the Places Leisure contract with MSDC, which also includes The Triangle, The Dolphin and The Kings leisure centres. As you may already be aware these three leisure centres have been severely affected by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic situation and it has only been since the beginning of September that they have been able to suitably re-open (https://www.mimsdavies.org.uk/campaigns/updated-12th-august-places-leisure-centres-mid-sussex ).
I have been told that as part of the significant negotiations with Places Leisure to re-open these 3 centres, a cross-party vote of the MSDC Council Chamber occurred mid-August to remove Clair Hall from the management contract to allow Places Leisure to concentrate on the reopening of these well-used and much needed leisure centres alongside further planned recovery work to relieve some of the cost pressures they are facing.
Disappointingly, it is reported to me under the social distancing rules, venues like Clair Hall cannot viably reopen at this time. This has been further impacted by the latest health announcement on the 8th September of a return to limited group numbers for socialising following the increase in infections and deaths due to Covid-19. Unfortunately even prior to this return to tighter social distancing measures I am very aware that following recent trials in London of events and meetings, venues reopening have shown that Covid-secure arrangements can only achieve around 30% of normal pre-Covid capacity.
Added to this Cllr Ash-Edwards has explained that even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic Clair Hall was operating at a loss and significant under usage. I understand that an analysis of its use has been completed which includes, for example, that it stands empty at least half of the time, bookings have been reducing year on year and that most users only visit once a month with around 75% of group bookings being for less than 50 people at a time. I am advised that this operating loss, in conjunction with the increased amount of financial support MSDC is already committing to the leisure centres, to the tune of £2.5 million, plus the cancellation of a number of other future bookings for Clair Hall as groups move to virtual meetings, means that MSDC’s ability to continue to subsidise Clair Hall in its current form is sadly simply not viable. The venue itself, if we are honest with ourselves, absolutely needs to be looked at and updated to future proof it.
Meanwhile there is good news, pleasingly Haywards Heath College, less than a mile from Clair Hall, reopened recently and offers some alternative rooms and facilities local groups can consider when the college is able to start taking external bookings. Having had the opportunity to visit and tour this wonderful facility just last week, it has a modern, purpose built theatre and performing arts space that could suit some groups in the meantime.
I am advised that the MSDC Cabinet will consider this situation further at their meeting on the 14th September and that they will at this time also look to start work on options including a business case for the potential inclusion of a modern community facility as part of the regeneration of this or other sites in the town centre.
As a local resident myself, as I have said I too have happy memories of attending events and performances at Clair Hall. Change is always difficult and I do recognise that this will have not been an easy decision for MSDC Councillors to have to make. I am pleased to see however that they will be rightly considering other vital options for an updated modern community facility that will continue to provide a much needed hub and space for arts, culture, groups, visitors and residents to support and enjoy.
I understand that an updated Haywards Heath Town Centre Masterplan is currently being prepared and that this will be consulted on in the Autumn. Rest assured that I will follow developments very closely, pushing as needed on behalf of Mid Sussex constituents for suitable facilities to host and promote our local arts, culture and community groups. I am keen and ready to support MDSC and our local Councillors as they work to achieve a great long term outcome for Mid Sussex.