Staff and parents at the Link and Learn Pre-School at the Link Centre have been told by GLL, the leisure centre’s management company, that their 21 year tenancy will end in the middle of July so that the existing gym can be extended to occupy the south side of the building on the first floor.
Link Centre was originally designed, built and opened in 1985 with a dedicated space for under 5s. Link and Learn is a registered charity employing five full and part-time members of staff and is managed by a committee of parents. It provides up to 24 places for children aged 3 and 4 years, offering 15 hours of free early years education per week.
Pre-school supervisor Gilly Betts said she and colleagues and committee members were devastated to be told in March that they had to leave. “Despite our long association within Link Centre we’ve being given hardly any time to find another place to meet. There are very few suitable premises in West Swindon, though we’ve heard there might be another possible venue. And with the government offering more free hours to parents, demand for pre-school provision across the town is rising.
“When Swindon Borough Council was negotiating with GLL to take over leisure centres across the town in 2013 and 2014, at no time during the contract discussions and during the consultation period were we asked by either organisation about our needs.
“Of course we were aware of the changes GLL wanted to make when they took over and we were pleased in April last year when Link Centre managers showed us space on the top floor that they stated might be suitable for us. There was no hint at the time that GLL might want us to go, but we were asked not to discuss relocation within the building in case the media got hold of it and misinterpreted the idea.
“Then, later in 2015, GLL came back to us to say the cost for alterations and refurbishment of the top floor would be £35,000 – and we would have to foot the cost. We were stunned. Obviously this was completely unaffordable for a small non-profit making charity like ourselves.
“In March this year we were told that the tenancy would be ending at the end of the summer term. It was really distressing to be told our pre-school is ‘not a financially viable product.’ All of us went home that day in tears.”
Staff member Annalisa Amoroso, who has been at Link and Learn Pre-School since 1996, expressed anger by the way the group is being treated. “The decision to ask us to pay for renovation work and then tell us to leave came as complete bombshells. The level of communication has been appalling. If GLL had suggested we might have to find another home last year we could have started looking, but to be given only a few months is just not fair.
“The lack of consideration really hurts. We’ve had so many messages of support; those from young adults who attended Link and Learn in their early years are very moving.”
In a statement GLL commented: “In April 2015 GLL advised the Link and Learn Playgroup that the space they hire for the scheme could be affected by planned expansion of the health & fitness facilities at Swindon’s Link Centre. At that time GLL agreed to look for alternative sites within the leisure centre, but advised Link and Learn that any relocation costs would have to be covered by the group.
“On 10 March 2016 GLL confirmed that the space hired by Link and Learn would be required for the planned expansion and that no other financially viable spaces would be available within the building.
“Although Link and Learn’s current booking of the space within the Link Centre only runs until 30 June, GLL has agreed to provide them with continued access until the end of their term, which runs until late July 2016.”
Swindon Council leased its leisure portfolio for 25 years in order to offload the ongoing costs of providing leisure facilities across the borough. Shaw councillor Keith Williams, who was Swindon Council’s cabinet member responsible for negotiating the lease contract with GLL in 2013/14 said the the development impacting Link & Learn Pre-school is ‘unfortunate news.’ He said: “I do not remember specific discussions with regard to the pre-school, but GLL made it clear in their proposals that expanding Link Centre’s gym would be a key component in making the building financially viable and making a contribution to the running costs of other leisure centres across the borough within the GLL package.
“The amount of intervention the borough council can now make is limited, but I do feel unless there is good communication by all parties it can lead to bad feelings.”
Cllr Jim Robbins, (Labour), representing Toothill in West Swindon, said: “We’re really disappointed that Link and Learn might be shutting and really hope they can find new premises.
“This shows the danger of outsourcing key facilities where new management from the private sector know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. It really is worrying that this might happen at Lydiard Park and other assets Swindon’s Conservative administration is looking to outsource.
“We’ll be supporting families to ensure they are able to find alternative pre-school provision if Link and Learn Playgroup is unable to relocate to another venue close-by.”
The notice to quit Link Centre comes at the same as Swindon Council is looking for more pre-school provision. Swindon is one of eight areas taking part in a pilot project funded by central government to increase the number of free pre-school education hours, from 15 to 30 a week. The scheme has run into problems in other parts of the country because pre-schools say the funding does not meet the extra costs they will incur. However Link and Learn had agreed to participate earlier this year.
Cllr Mary Martin (Conservative), representing Shaw, commented: “The borough’s Early Year’s Partnership team are aware of the situation and assisting Link and Learn Pre-School in their search for another venue to meet.”
Pictured top, Link & Learn Pre-school children with staff, front, Annalisa Amoroso, back from left, Karen Portsmith, Gilly Betts, Tina Hendry, committee chair Liz Moore, Mandy Morris