RESIDENTS living near River Park in Winchester are furious that green space would be concreted over if plans to double the size of the leisure centre go ahead.

They are set to vent their anger tonight at a public meeting over a replacement £25m leisure centre on playing fields at River Park.

People living in Hyde plan to attend the invitation-only meeting at Winchester Guildhall called to discuss the scheme.

City council chiefs have revealed a scheme for an 8,000 square metre complex — almost double the size of the existing facility — with a bigger gym, more swimming pool space and a larger 12-court sports hall.

But it would mean the loss of green open space currently used for football, cricket, Frisbee, picnics and dog walking. Some trees may also be axed.

Now a hastily-formed ‘Save The Park’ group has hit out, accusing the council of “ripping out the heart and soul of one of Winchester’s treasured open spaces”.

The group’s Hazel Agombar — who is also a member of Winchester Friends of the Earth — said: “It is a lovely open space that is already well used by the local community, so to build over it and make it somewhere people have to pay for formal exercise seems ludicrous.

“There is a real sense of outrage and disbelief among 99 per cent of local people and parents on the school run at St Bede Primary School. It is very contentious. People think the whole character of Hyde will change as a result.”

Members of Save the Park want to keep the leisure centre’s current location. The council estimates it would cost between £6m and £7m to revamp with some “modest improvements”.

The meeting in the Guildhall will outline the council’s proposals, but it is invitation-only for sports clubs and users of the centre.

Mrs Agombar said: “We have told people it is an open meeting and if they get turned away that is a message in itself about the strength of feeling that there is about it.

“A lot of people are hoping to have their say. I think the meeting could get extremely heated.”

The council plans to keep the existing leisure centre, which needs multi-million pound repairs, open during building work, estimated to take up to two years.

Then the current building would be demolished to make way for a 300-space car park, more than twice the size of the existing one, and possibly new housing.

The idea is the extra revenue could help pay building costs as the cash-strapped council will have to borrow money to build the new centre.

Other proposals include creating a one-way system so traffic could enter the site along Gordon Road and exit via Park Avenue.

Council chiefs this week insisted no final decisions has been made. However, the cabinet has already approved spending £100,000 on technical reports, including water drainage, transport and ecology surveys.

‘Fit for the Future’, an umbrella group of sports clubs, has been campaigning for a new leisure centre to be built at Bar End. It wants an Olympic-sized 50-metre pool for competitive swimming and gymnastics hall.

At present, the council is proposing to build a 10-lane, 25-metre pool, plus a 20-metre teaching pool, hydrotherapy and rehabilitation pool.

The local authority commissioned consultants, Savills, to look at two possible locations for a new building — River Park and Bar End.

However, Savills was not asked to give advice on whether the council should refurbish the existing building and possibly extend it.

Speaking at an overview and scrutiny committee on Monday, Cllr Malcolm Wright argued for the latter.

He said: “There has been no look at the existing building. The structure is still sound and will be sound for the next 40 years. The problem is the building is not up to date, but we can make it fit for purpose.”

But council leader Keith Wood warned more reports and consultation could lead to no action at all.

He said: “You can go on getting information and you can put off making a decision forever, and if that’s what the council wants to do then, so be it. But my judgement is we should decide what we are going to do.”

See letters page in today's Chronicle for more local reaction.