We lift the lid on council’s secretive move to sell Mepal Outdoor Centre to convert it to a crematorium

PUBLISHED: 21:54 28 July 2020 | UPDATED: 22:18 28 July 2020

The Mepal Outdoor Centre that could be converted to a crematorium.Picture:: Seb Pearce`

The Mepal Outdoor Centre that could be converted to a crematorium.Picture:: Seb Pearce`

Archant

A secret bid to sell Mepal Outdoor Centre and convert it to a crematorium will be unveiled at a confidential meeting of East Cambridgeshire District Council.

Crews spent three hours fighting the flames at Mepal Outdoor Centre yesterday. Officers have said the fire was started deliberately. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.Crews spent three hours fighting the flames at Mepal Outdoor Centre yesterday. Officers have said the fire was started deliberately. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.

The Tory-controlled council will discuss Mepal behind closed doors on Friday evening and have gagged councillors from discussing it publicly.

The agenda simply says ‘asset management matter- parish of Mepal’ and councillors will be asked to vote for the press and public to be excluded.

Council officers have been in talks for six months with the company although a deal is not quite on the table.

They fear that a premature leak could jeopardise the deal and council leader Anna Bailey says any proposals will be put before the community before a decision is taken.

Aerial images showing last night's fire at the Mepal Outdoor Centre, near Chatteris. Pictures: Daniel Easy.Aerial images showing last night's fire at the Mepal Outdoor Centre, near Chatteris. Pictures: Daniel Easy.

She refused to comment when I put it to her that a crematorium was planned.

Mepal parish council chairman Brian Rollason said his members had been trying to find out the district council’s plans for the site.

“You’re having a giraffe,” was his reaction to news that it may become a crematorium.

He said he remembered the time Mepal Outdoor Centre was popular and it was a shame it had been left empty.

Five crews of firefighters were called to a fire on the site of the Mepal Outdoor Centre. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.Five crews of firefighters were called to a fire on the site of the Mepal Outdoor Centre. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.

“It is definitely in a run-down state and has become prone to vandalism,” he said. “I can’t say at present what the village will think of it becoming a crematorium.”

If approved an application at Mepal could expect to attract objections from Fenland Crematorium, which opened 10 years ago at March.

At the time an application for another crematorium was being touted for Chatteris, just six miles from Mepal and was vehemently opposed by the Fenland crematorium.

They claimed that if the application for Chatteris succeeded it would threaten their viability.

View looking inside the building at Mepal Outdoor Centre following Sunday night's fire. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.View looking inside the building at Mepal Outdoor Centre following Sunday night's fire. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.

Lib Dem councillors Lorna Dupre and Mark Inskip are both remaining tight lipped about the proposals; they issued a statement explaining that requests to the chief executive John Hill to tell the public what was going was turned down

“We wrote to the chief executive asking that as much of the material as possible should be made public, and only those elements absolutely required to be kept secret should be held back from publication,” they said. “Our request was refused.”

They added that the council had ordered a news blackout for four possibly another four months.

“We believe this to be both unfeasible and morally objectionable,” they said.

Firefighters had to dig their way through a mound of soil which had been piled up at the entrance of Mepal Outdoor Centre. The fire on July 12 2020 is being treated as arson. Picutres: SuppliedFirefighters had to dig their way through a mound of soil which had been piled up at the entrance of Mepal Outdoor Centre. The fire on July 12 2020 is being treated as arson. Picutres: Supplied

However annoyed they were, though, they accepted they have “a legal duty as councillors to abide by the confidentiality rules imposed by the law and the council on its business, and have no choice but to do so.

“We have made representations to the council about the unacceptable position in which its behaviour has placed us, and called on it to reconsider its demand for months more unwarranted secrecy.

“In the meantime, we say to our residents—we are deeply frustrated and angry that we are being forced to keep you in the dark, and are fighting as hard as possible to get the council to behave in a more transparent manner.”

The 30-acre outdoor centre at Mepal, off the A142 near Chatteris, closed down after it was targeted by vandals during Christmas week in December 2016, who had stolen change from a vending machine before setting it on fire.

Mepal Outdoor Centre closed in 2016.Mepal Outdoor Centre closed in 2016.

The blaze caused serious structural damage to the building as well as smoke damage.

The centre, which boasts a 22-acre lake, climbing wall and giant ropes frame, had been used by schools, youth groups and charities who stayed at the centre’s in-house accommodation block with 38 beds and a staff flat.

Thousands of youngsters would enjoy a number of outdoor activities, such as sailing, archery, canoeing and rock climbing.

After the arson attack, trustees - who had been running the charitable enterprise for four years - handed the lease back to landlords East Cambridgeshire District Council and the centre was closed down in February 2017.

Aerial images showing last night's fire at the Mepal Outdoor Centre, near Chatteris. Pictures: Daniel Easy.Aerial images showing last night's fire at the Mepal Outdoor Centre, near Chatteris. Pictures: Daniel Easy.

For a time, the council sought a “suitable operational or development partner” to either acquire a lease or the freehold.

Council officers felt confident a viable business could be developed with appropriate investment and a robust business model.

Originally formed from gravel workings, the site has been used for outdoor pursuits informally since the 1960s, and more formally since the 1980s.

On paper the centre at one stage looked profitable with admissions, courses, revenue grants, memberships and training netting the centre £316,000 as recently as 10 years ago.

Five crews of firefighters were called to a fire on the site of the Mepal Outdoor Centre. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.Five crews of firefighters were called to a fire on the site of the Mepal Outdoor Centre. Pictures: Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue.

However, the 23 staff employed at the time swallowed £231,027 of this income and other costs – including courses, premises and depreciation – added a further £168,659 to the overheads.

Fenland Council once chipped in to help with the running costs but later withdrew support.

MP Steve Barclay has been a long term champion of re-starting Mepal as an outdoor leisure centre. Tonight he told me he knew nothing of the current proposals.

“The proposals have not been shared with me,” he said.


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