COUNCIL taxpayers are to bail out a leisure centre after trustees ran up a £610,000 debt.

The Highworth Recreation Centre is to remain open, after Swindon Council showed mercy by agreeing not to force repayment of the debt.

The cash was owed for building, a loan and employee costs for the council-staffed centre, after the trust in charge of it let its finances get out of hand.

At a meeting of the council’s Tory cabinet last night, there was stinging criticism of the trust’s “bad financial management” and “complete underestimate” of the costs of running the centre, although the meeting heard there was nothing criminal in its handling of the cash.

Coun Fionnuala Foley (Old Town), the cabinet member in charge of leisure, warned it would leave a massive void in the lives of people in Highworth“ if the centre was allowed to go under.

She said: “This would be a massive loss to people in Highworth.

“They can’t go to another facility round the corner. It’d be a car or bus journey 20 minutes into town.

“It’s a unique situation. It would have a serious affect on the budget, but I think it’s the right decision to make.”

The cabinet’s financial chief, Mark Edwards (St Margaret), said: “This is a significant amount of money we’re talking about writing off. A huge amount of money.

“Leaving this problem with the trustees is a real option for us.

“We could pursue our costs and get our loan back. But I’m not sure that’s in the best interests of Swindon. We potentially risk the centre closing down, many people bankrupt, and many people out of work.”

And Coun David Renard (Haydon Wick) said: “I’m very torn on this issue. In the current financial year Children’s Services had to find huge savings, and we’re presented with a recommendation that we write off £610,000.

“For the first time in nine years’ I think I’ll have to abstain in a vote, because I’m unable to support this.”

But when the votes were counted it was clear the centre's debt is to be written off.

Two councillors abstained and one voted against.

Cabinet leader Rod Bluh (Dorcan) voted in favour of writing the debt off.

As well as writing off the debt, Swindon Council will continue as usual to subsidise the centre to the tune of £105,000 per year, while £50,000 comes from Highworth Town Council.