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JACK MCKEOWN: Perthshire’s First Minister John Swinney should save Bell’s Sports Centre

Getting rid of Perth's three sports centres and replacing them with just one facility that won't open for years is a bad idea.

Dave Munro outside Bells Sports Centre.
Scottish Open Volleyball Tournament organiser Dave Munro outside Bells Sports Centre. Image: DC Thomson.

Next weekend I’ll be in Perth for the biggest volleyball tournament in the UK.

The Perth Open has been going since 1985 and I’ve played at most of them since 1994.

In the tournament’s first year there were 38 teams. Next weekend 143 teams will compete across seven men’s, women’s and mixed divisions.

Players travel from Belgium, France, Holland, Germany, Ireland and Eastern Europe for the event.

Action from the Perth Open Volleyball Tournament. Image: DC Thomson.

Four members of my team are Canadian and are flying in from Toronto. In the past, teams of American scholarship athletes have come over to play against the Scotland squad and Russian teams have come over to compete.

In total there will be nearly 1,500 volleyballers in Perth next weekend. Virtually every B&B and hotel room is booked up. Everyone goes out for meals and more than a few beers in the local hostelries. It’s great thing for the city.

This may be the last year the event is ever held.

Wednesday saw Perth & Kinross Council vote to close Bell’s Sports Centre. The Perth Open takes place on the North Inch and relies on Bell’s for toilet, shower, and office facilities.

The sports centre is due to close at the end of the summer.

Out of money

The cash strapped council can’t afford to keep it open. Running cost are high. It needs repairs. And it flooded in October.

So they’re going to bring the shutters down. The city’s other main facilities – Perth Leisure Pool and Dewars Centre – are also expected to be axed. They’ll be replaced by just one new sports centre, which won’t open until 2027 at the earliest.

Closing these centres is a disaster. It’s wrongheaded. It will make Perth a worse place.

Perth Leisure Pool exterior with flumes.
Perth Leisure Pool is one of the three sports centres slated for closure. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Bell’s is now B listed, which means the council probably can’t demolish it and will have to find a purpose for it. Perth Leisure Pool is also under consideration for listing.

If that happens the council will struggle to knock that building down too and will end up with two sports facilities it has closed but can’t get rid of.

No matter what happens, the council has to spend £600,000 fixing concrete at Bell’s and £900,000 to move its gym to Dewars and shut down the indoor bowling there.

I struggle to see how maintaining one and possibly two B listed leisure centres and spending tens of millions on a new one is cheaper than keeping the three centres that are there now.

Bell’s Sports Centre after it flooded in October. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

Not that this is all the council’s fault. Although whichever nitwits decided not to close the gates of Perth’s expensive flood defence system when torrential rain was forecast deserve a drubbing.

All local authorities are struggling to make ends meet and it can be only a matter of time before one or more declare bankruptcy, as has happened with several councils in England.

The Scottish Government needs to find more money for councils and it needs to prioritise sports facilities.

Sport helps prevent obesity, heart attacks, strokes and all manner of other health problems. Investment in sport and exercise pays for itself in reduced costs to the NHS.

Build beauty

Which brings me to our new First Minister, John Swinney. He won’t remember me but I’ve met him a couple of times and he always struck me as a nice, well-intentioned guy.

Our editor, who is a good friend of mine, knows him well and confirms he is a decent and genuine man.

John Swinney and his wife Elizabeth Quigley at Bute House. Image: DC Thomson.

I know John is a Courier reader and I only occasionally get the opportunity to write an opinion column for the paper. So John, here’s what I would like you to do, please:

Talk to Perth & Kinross Council. Find a way for the sports centres there to be saved. There’s got to be a better solution than this.

After that, and on a much bigger scale: please make Scotland beautiful. Or more beautiful. By planting more trees and building better houses.

I was in Aviemore a couple of weeks ago and took the dogs deep into Rothiemurchus Forest. It’s wonderful. Woodland you can get lost in.

Rothiemurchus Forest. Image: Supplied.

This afternoon I was in Tentsmuir Forest. It’s also lovely, but every so often huge chunks of it are clear-felled, leaving a scarred landscape.

Let’s plant native forest as far and wide as we can, leaving a wonderful legacy for our children and their children. And let’s stop clear-felling. It’s ugly. Grow more forests and cut down no more than half the trees at any one time.

Better buildings

And let’s build better. Perth, St Andrews, Forfar, Kirkcaldy, and Arbroath have beautiful stone-built architecture at their heart…and thousands of boring, low-quality homes built by big developers bloating their outskirts.

Let’s take inspiration from Europe and create a self-build culture. Instead of giving Persimmon Homes permission to build 900 boring homes with workmen they’ve brought to the area for a few months, sell 900 serviced plots and let people use local architects, joiners, sparkies, plumbers, bricklayers and stonemasons to build them.

Let’s build another Plockton. Image; Supplied.

And let’s build around water. Scotland has dozens of redundant reservoirs. The Scottish Government should buy them and commission architecture competitions to build villages around them.

I wouldn’t be averse to developing some of our lochs either, if what was built was of great quality. Who wouldn’t want another Torridon, Applecross, or Plockton?

Coire Glas will be a huge hydro storage system in the hills above Loch Lochy. Build a village around the new reservoir. The houses will help pay for the scheme and it will be a wonderful place to live.

Let’s build well and create beauty that will last.