COUNCIL bosses came under fire from residents at a heated meeting last night to discuss the future of the River Park Leisure Centre.

There was anger at a lack of public consultation over a £25m proposal to build a new centre on playing fields at River park.

Council officers recommended keeping the existing leisure centre, which needs extensive repairs, open during building work, which could take two years.

The current building would then be demolished, making way for a 300-space car park - twice the size of the current one. Council chiefs argued the extra capacity will be necessary as Winchester has a growing population.

Some 150 people attended the meeting at Winchester Guildhall.

James McConnachie, 40, of Egbert Road, said: “One thing that is irreplaceable is open space. How will you value the loss of that field to my children?

“When we go to the fields you’re talking of building on, those children act in a way I have never seen them do anywhere else in Winchester – they run freely.”

Winchester City Council leader, Keith Wood, said: “The council needs to provide leisure facilities. If you say yes, then you need to find somewhere to put it.”

There was also much criticism of the decision to make the event an invitation-only affair, as only members of selected sports clubs and members of the current leisure centre were asked to the meeting.

Julian McCarthy, chairman of the Southampton Triathlon Club, lives in Winchester. He told Cllr Wood: “You said you want to hear from the general public but the general public have not been invited.

“Ripping up the playing field is the last thing you want to be doing.”

Many of those present urged civic chiefs to consider refurbishing the current facility – estimated by the council to cost between £6m and £7m to revamp with some “modest improvements” - whilst further exploring a longer term solution at Bar End.

Eric Bodger, vice chairman of Curdridge Parish Council, said: “There is some concern that so much is to be spent on a facility convenient only to a small minority of taxpayers.

“This concern can be addressed by making the facility more convenient – for example at Bar End.”

But Cllr Wood said that while Bar End remained an option, the site is owned by Tesco, who have already been approached. "Tesco won’t talk to us. We have been trying for nearly a year,” he said.

Cllr Simon Cook said: “This was an interesting meeting because the council will now have to look at Bar End, and I would welcome that. The initial report did not look at locations as part of the brief and that was the mistake.”

After the meeting, Winchester and Chandler’s Ford MP, Steve Brine, urged a rethink.

“I think everyone, whatever their view and wherever they live, needs to take two steps back and pause for thought. I am sure the councillors present will have got a very clear message from those at the meeting; I will be urging them to look at this afresh.”

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