CIVIC chiefs are set to press ahead with the controversial sale of the River Park Leisure Centre site to Southampton University.

They say the disposal of the site on a 150-year lease would be the best decision, despite widespread opposition over a lack of consultation.

A final decision is due to be made at the city council Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, March 9, as the Chronicle went to press.

A public campaign over the future of the skate park has forced the council to arrange a lease back with the university to give reassurance over its long-term future.

Two campaigners addressed the scrutiny committee last week. Martin Wilson called for a proper consultation to be held about future uses of the site. "I ask the scrutiny committee to 'call in' the issue. It is too important to be taken with such haste."

Rose Burns, of the Friends of River Park, said despite the Friends' successful challenge it was still "ploughing ahead with exactly the same decision. I urge you to press the pause button until residents have had the chance to put forward their views."

Cabinet member Kelsie Learney said there had been several consultations over the future of the city in recent years: over the Local Plan, the Green Economic Development Strategy, Vision for Winchester, the Winchester Movement Strategy, the Central Winchester Regeneration development and the North Walls Plan. "Many residents say 'we want you to listen to what we have already said' and not keep asking them. we need to take advantage of the opportunities that arise not keep finding reasons for not taking decisions."


Conservative councillor Stephen Godfrey said: "It still comes across as if Cabinet knows best," and added that the disposal was "ill-informed".

Senior lawyer Matt Hutchings QC was at the scrutiny committee to give advice and said the current issue was a land transaction. There would be the chance for public consultation when a planning application is made in the future.

Tory group leader Caroline Horrill said she did not oppose the transaction but queried the process. "People have not had the chance to have their say. We haven't taken everyone with us. Why don't you be brave and let people have the conversation with you. If you allow that and take the people with you in what could be a fantastic scheme. I don't understand your reluctance."

Cllr Learney said Southampton University may "get cold feet and look elsewhere. They have options in Southampton rather than investing tens of millions in Winchester."

She said the sale to Southampton University was very exciting and would help the city attract and retain young talent.

Cllr Learney denied the land was been given to the university. "We are not gifting the site to the university. This is the price we would expect in an open sale given the constraints on the site (such as the £2m cost of demolition). Going to the open market would be unlikely to achieve a better result but delay could lead to the opportunity to the city falling away."

The committee heard that land in Winchester can reach £6m per acre and the River Park site is four acres.