Questions for Councillors over Sencio Issues

30 Mar 2023
Sencio closed sign

Evidence that Sencio was in trouble was covered in Council reports from 2020 / 21, and in the Chronicle on December 29th 2022. Then the Chief Executive spelled out that without more Government energy cost support beyond March 2023, the swimming pools would have to close. The only way of staying open would be support from Sevenoaks District Council.

Less well advertised, at the same time, Sencio withheld half of the pay due to some employees for December, As one has said "we got paid in December but they paid us half at the end of the month and half beginning of January due to cash flow". It wasn't the first time staff had been paid late, but in this case Sencio paid 2022 wages out of the income from subscriptions which came in January, which were to cover gym and pool use in 2023. The same staff member says that suppliers went unpaid - a classic indicator of a business trading without enough cash.

Also Sencio had not filed accounts for three years. This should have been a big red flag for Sevenoaks District council, both as the owner of the centres and as representative of thousands of local residents paying their New Year subscriptions. And yet when Sencio's boss came to the Council's Scrutiny Committee in mid January nobody thought to mention it.

With this evidence, the Council could at that stage have asked Sencio to hand back their contract, and the centres, and made a less chaotic transition before they went bust. The new operator SDC who has been talking to since 2021 could have been brought in to give some continuity to users. Everyone understands how vital the pool and sports hall are, and every effort must be made to keep them open. But SDC didn't do this. As late as February 21st SDC's Leader assured us - "Sencio had not approached the Council to say they were in financial difficulties and it would be unwise of us to say they were without evidence"

Instead they stood back and let it go to the wall. Time will tell if this approach to rescue Sevenoaks, Lullingstone and Edenbridge will cost the taxpayer less than the £3million overspend on Swanley's leisure centre. From early estimates it looks unlikely. But other people in Sevenoaks will lose a lot - the independent gym instructors, the suppliers of cleaning services and materials, the staff, user clubs and the local residents who have paid their subs for 2023.

The front door of Sevenoaks Leisure Centre bears the slogan 'Sencio - In Partnership with Sevenoaks District Council'. It doesn't look like partnership working to most of us - neither side had enough trust in the other to solve the problems for the sake of users. For those Councillors who were on Sencio Board - as a condition of setting up the Trust - there's a very obvious question; When did they know, and were they asleep?

Tony Clayton
Lib Dem District Councillor for Eastern Ward

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