PLANS for a new sports centre with an Olympic class pool in Winchester have been approved.

The crumbling River Park Leisure Centre is set to be replaced with a multi-million pound facility in Bar End, boasting a 50m pool and 12-court sports hall.

The new centre would also feature a hydrotherapy pool, four squash courts, a fitness gym with four studios and a cafe.

The plans were approved by Winchester City Council last night after years of changing positions. Previous council administrations dismissed the idea of a 50m pool as unaffordable, resisting calls from local sports clubs.

In a debate at Winchester Guildhall which ran into the early hours, Cllr Eileen Berry said the £34m scheme would have to attract enough athletes to turn a profit.

She said: "It has to cover everything the end of this is the financial side nothing is very good if you only look to break even and that has been the problem in the past, you have to have profit to keep the thing going."

However, fellow Conservative Linda Gemmell raised concerns about high entry prices for swimmers, citing a centre in St Albans visited by Winchester councillors.

Cllr Gemmell said: "£6.20 a swim it is not affordable for the people I represent, who are you building this for?

“If it is the elite I am not happy."

River Park, built in the 1970s, has long been seen as unfit for purpose. Once it is replaced, the council is considering building a cultural venue on the land.

At last night's meeting Liberal Democrat Martin Tod described the 50m pool as fundamental to serving the area's growing population, contrasting the view of his former group leader, Cllr Kelsie Learney.

The scheme's financial modelling needs more work, Cllr Tod added.

The exact location for a centre in Bar End has yet to be decided. There are two options: the Tesco-owned Garrison Ground next to Bar End Road or the King George V field off Milland Road.

The current earmarked location is at the King George V field, which people feel will lead to a loss of playing space for children, due to a car park being built over it. 

But council leader Stephen Godfrey said officials are negotiating with the supermarket to try and lower their asking price.

Last year council officers believed Tesco's demands were so high the site may not be viable, though this came before a funding deal was announced with Hampshire County Council and Winchester University.

The council voted nearly unanimously to spend around £770,000 for design, project management and other professional services including creating a master plan and consultations required to move the plans forward.