WOKING Borough Council stands accused of putting political sniping ahead of the needs of their electorate after a plea for privacy descended into farce.
Despite mum Ashleigh Varkevisser’s urgent call to address the unisex changing facilities at Woking’s Pool in the Park – and reports to the police from victims of alleged voyeurism – no action has yet been implemented.
And, having taken her campaign for safety and security to the News & Mail (October 8 edition, front page), she was left stunned by the apparent lax approach of the council when the matter was brought forward last Thursday.
Angered Ashleigh, who’s 46 and lives in Wych Hill with her husband and two daughters under the age of 10, told the News & Mail: “I am bitterly disappointed with the outcome of the recent council meeting.
“How many more victims must there be before something is actually done about it? The layout is an open invitation to voyeurs – and worse. I don’t see why the facilities can’t just be segregated with one line of cubicles labelled ‘Male’ and the other ‘Female’ – signage would not cost much and is a prompt solution.
“I know other such incidents have been reported at the pool since mine. I certainly won’t take my girls there unless something is done; my friends feel the same.”
Thursday’s heated exchange began with Liberal Democrat Councillor Liam Lyons putting forward a motion for segregated changing facilities.
It read: ‘Due to a number of incidents where people have been spied upon while getting changed, the changing area at Pool in the Park [operated by Freedom Leisure] will be redesigned at the earliest opportunity to provide segregated changing facilities.’
Usually such motions would be addressed at a future meeting, but Conservative Cllr Melanie Whitehand enacted a clause in the constitution to propose the motion be voted on that night. Cllr Lyons said: “I supported this as I thought a swift outcome would be best.”
However, Cllr Whitehand submitted an amendment, replacing ‘will be redesigned at the earliest opportunity to provide segregated changing facilities’ with ‘the council note that remedial action is already planned and urges this to be implemented as soon as possible’.
It added: ‘It is also noted that longer term there is an ambition to refurbish the changing rooms with funds to be earmarked in the investment programme.’
But there was more drama to come when Cllr Whitehand accused Cllr Lyons of sitting on the issue in a bid to drum up votes ahead of next year’s election.
Cllr Lyons said he had been trying to find a solution ‘behind the scenes to avoid the Conservatives doing exactly what they did on Thursday night’.
Cllr Whitehand’s amendment, which was seconded by Conservative Cllr David Bittleston, was eventually voted on and passed.
Cllr Lyons did not support it because he believed the new phrasing would not offer an appropriate solution.
He told the News & Mail: “I am extremely disappointed that the Conservatives decided to play politics with such an important issue.
“In throwing out my motion, and replacing it with meaningless words that will result in no action whatsoever, they have missed an opportunity to make the Pool in the Park more accessible to women, some of whom have already suffered the deeply unpleasant experience of being spied on while getting changed.”
Cllr Bittleston, Portfolio Holder for Woking Leisure Centre and Pool in the Park, suggested that the case was not as black and white as appears.
He explained: “This is simply not just about the type of changing facilities available at Pool in the Park, as this would not necessarily resolve the situation. We are committed to finding a solution.
“In the short term we will be installing modesty boards at the bottom of the cubicles to reduce the opportunity to spy. Through the Leisure Partnership Board, we will address matters in the long term. Despite previous unsuccessful changing room grant funding bids to Sport England, a programme of refurbishment works are planned to go ahead and provide us with the opportunity to incorporate current best practice, while consulting pool users, in finding the best solution to our requirements.”
Mrs Varkevisser was spied on by a man from the gap beneath her cubicle when she was changing after a swim. Police confirmed that further complaints of voyeurism had been lodged since her report in May. Another incident was reported in September, and involved a young girl.
As the News & Mail went to press no date had been set for works to begin, leaving Mrs Varkevisser and the future security of the changing facilities in limbo.