Friday 19 March 2010

Incompetent Polo Deal Is Bad Value And Bad For Borough’s Young

Last year, the historic running track (featured in Chariots of Fire) was ripped out of Hurlingham Park. The vandals in this case were H&F Council’s Conservative Administration. Instead they agreed for a private promoter to replace it with a polo field which would be then be used for an exclusive, ticketed, annual, three-day event.

Initially, H&F Conservatives indicated that the cinder running track would be replaced. But, on the 9th March 2010 at the Value for Money Scrutiny Committee Cllr. Paul Bristow (Con), the innovator of this scheme, confirmed that the running track would never be replaced by the Conservatives. He said that if south Fulham’s athletes and young wanted to practice on a cinder running track “they should go to the Linford Christie Stadium [a 45 minute bus ride away in Wormwood Scrubs] instead”. At least he had the grace to look embarrassed.

It gets worse though. It turns out that the reason the specialist running track was removed was because it was built on a hard surface. That surface was unsuitable for an international polo event. The polo company therefore paid £200,000 to have this dug up and replaced with a new lawn that fitted their requirements. However, it would be costly for the company to replace the cinder running track once the polo finished. So the Conservative Administration chose not to make them do so.

H&F Council is paid a measly £25,000 per year for the rent of the park by the polo promoter. This sum in no way makes up for the loss of the park while it is closed to the public prior to, during and after the event or for the loss of the only cinder running track in Fulham. The track would undoubtedly have become an increasingly important facility for our young people as many are expected to be inspired by the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics.

This deal is clearly bad for our young, it’s terrible value for all residents of Hammersmith and Fulham and the negotiation that led to this deal is little short of incompetent. But none of that has stopped H&F Council’s press office going into overdrive and hailing it as a wonderful outcome. Wrongly they claim the Council negotiated £250,000 that will be invested into local sports. That clearly isn’t true. This figure is derived from adding the £25,000 annual fee to the £200,000 the event promoter spent on bringing the field up to international polo standards.

At the scrutiny meeting Cllr. Bristow and his officers tried to tell us that this was all OK because the council also wanted better grass for people to play rugby and football on. But there were suitable pitches already there which were being used for those sports well before this event was negotiated. Indeed, playing polo ruins the fields for those sports. In fact that is exactly what happened two weeks ago when a planned rugby match had to be moved at the last minute because the horses’ hoof marks made the pitch impossible to play on after it had been used for a polo press event.

Readers will recall how H&F Conservatives initially tried to change the license for Ravenscourt Park and Furnival Gardens to allow, loud music, late night events and even wrestling. My Labour colleagues and I have successfully managed to curtail these ambitions over the last three years.

Our parks should have good facilities that are in line with what the majority of residents want and are open and free to all where possible. We should use local parks to promote health and happiness and particularily encourage our young people into worthwhile activities such as athletics and other sports. The Conservatives' incompetence and their overall approach to this exclusive polo event demonstrates why they are unsuitable custodians of our public spaces.

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