Dispute over re-opening of council buildings

Edmonton Leisure Centre
Edmonton Leisure Centre re-opened on 20th August, a month after leisure centres were permitted to re-open by the government

Councillors claim leisure centres and libraries should have opened sooner, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Conservative councillors have slammed what they claim was a “slow” re-opening of leisure centres and other services in Enfield following the Covid-19 lockdown – but were told their own plans would put people’s safety at risk.

At a full council meeting this week members of the Conservative group claimed the administration had “dragged its feet” over the re-opening of services, with Enfield lagging behind other local authorities. But Labour councillors hit back, accusing the Tories of going against government advice and putting staff and residents at risk of catching Covid-19.

The row comes as rising coronavirus cases have sparked local lockdowns in parts of the UK – and London is now on a government watchlist as an ‘area of concern’.

Conservative leader Joanne Laban said: “The administration has dragged its feet when it comes to reopening services. We need to provide the best services for residents. We could and should have done more.”

Barrowell Green Recycling Centre in Winchmore Hill re-opened on 11th May with an appointment-only system, but the Tories said other boroughs had opened their facilities sooner without the need for a booking system. And while the government allowed leisure centres to open their doors from 25th July, Enfield’s partially re-opened nearly a month later, on 20th August. It followed a dispute with private leisure provider Fusion, which runs the centres as part of a long-term contract with the council.

Restrictions on libraries were also lifted on 4th July, but so far only four of Enfield’s 17 libraries have re-opened, with booking required to browse the shelves. Enfield Town and Edmonton Green libraries re-opened in July while Palmers Green and Ordnance Unity re-opened in September.

Opposition councillors also claimed residents had been spotted banging on the doors of Enfield Civic Centre and could have been left with the impression that the council was closed for business. They called for a review and an action plan to ensure the council is quicker and more flexible when re-opening services following any future lockdown if it occurs.

But council leader Nesil Caliskan said she had been “ashamed” to read the opposition business paper. “This shows [the Conservatives] cannot be trusted to keep residents and staff safe during the coronavirus crisis,” she said. “Not only would Enfield Conservatives have had the civic centre building fully open the last few months, putting staff and residents at risk, but they would continue to have it open right now when Covid-19 infection rates are dramatically increasing.

“Absolutely bonkers.”

Cllr Caliskan said the administration was effectively delivering services, pointing out many staff had been redeployed to a food distribution hub and other emergency measures designed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

She claimed the council had been quicker to respond to the pandemic than other boroughs and had won praise for its efforts. Restrictions at Barrowell Green are designed to manage the flow of visitors to the site to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the leader added.

Deputy leader Ian Barnes also suggested the Enfield Conservatives were at odds with the message coming from the government in Westminster and Labour councillor George Savva claimed the Conservative group was putting “profits before people”.

Tory Chris Dey responded: “We are not asking the council to do anything unsafe. Members of the public should be able to go to a library, recycling centre, or the civic centre, without needing to make an appointment, because other boroughs are clearly demonstrating they can do it in a safe, Covid-secure way, following government advice.

“We should have done better. We have failed the residents of Enfield.”

Tory group leader Joanne Laban claimed other councils such as Essex and Hertfordshire had re-opened services sooner, and Enfield should follow their example in the event of a second lockdown.

Cllr Caliskan said she was proud of the council’s coronavirus response and would “stand up for the residents of Enfield” by holding the government to account over its handling of the pandemic.