A stoush has broken out over plans to close a squash and tennis club at Waikato Hospital and replace it with parking and a gymnasium.

Waikato District Health Board began consulting with the Hospital Squash and Tennis Racquets Club in April last year over closure.

The DHB said it believed 1000 staff would use a gym but, at a cost of $300,000, the idea was parked.

Next the DHB said it intended to repurpose the tennis court, which doubles as a netball court, into desperately-needed staff car parks.

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The idea went down like a lead balloon with club members, about 150 staff, friends, family - including children - and mental health patients.

"They want to pave paradise and put up a parking lot," club member Richard Johnston said.

"That's how we feel. Of our members, nobody wanted to close, not one that I know of. It's a sad day. We are not leaving happily."

Hospital Squash and Tennis Racquets Club president Sylvia Manning on the tennis and netball court that is to be converted to parking. Photo / Natalie Akoorie
Hospital Squash and Tennis Racquets Club president Sylvia Manning on the tennis and netball court that is to be converted to parking. Photo / Natalie Akoorie

In November the club made a submission outlining the well-researched benefits of racquet sports, including that it added almost 10 years to a person's life expectancy.

Waikato DHB facilities and business executive director Chris Cardwell said the DHB could not continue providing access to the courts.

"Unfortunately, the DHB is not in the position, nor is there a legal obligation, to provide monetary compensation to the Squash Club."

In February Johnston and club president Sylvia Manning wrote to the board saying that to replace a sports facility with a carpark was inconsistent with DHB policy.

It drew the board's attention to obligations it has for the wellbeing and fitness of employees, highlighting the DHB's own Bodywise publication that recommended children play a racquet sport for physical and psychological health.

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But the board never saw the letter.

Last month the DHB's Medical Officer of Health Dr Richard Vipond asked interim chief executive Derek Wright to reconsider.

"In public health we believe in encouraging public and active transport over building ever more parking spaces.

"There is also public health merit in providing staff members with facilities to improve their physical fitness."

The club, founded and maintained by volunteers for 40 years, reluctantly agreed to vacate the courts by the end of May.

At its monthly meeting in March the board heard it would cost $15,000 to turn the tennis court into car parks, and the DHB would seek an external investor to develop and operate a potential gym.

Waikato DHB interim chief executive Derek Wright, who steps down next week, said the squash and tennis club had no lease and did not pay rent. Photo / Alan Gibson
Waikato DHB interim chief executive Derek Wright, who steps down next week, said the squash and tennis club had no lease and did not pay rent. Photo / Alan Gibson

Wright told the board it was an "operational matter". He was not aware that mental health patients from the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre [HRBC] and patients undergoing occupational therapy also use the courts for rehabilitation.

Former HRBC patient Chris Reti said he used the tennis court up to three times a day in summer for six years along with other mental health patients and staff.

"It's a form of exercise for us. A lot of us love playing tennis and it'd be a big shame for them to turn it into a carpark."

Reti, 50, now a part-time car valet, said playing tennis aided his rehabilitation.

"It helped me to relax, it helped me to communicate with people. It'd be a big shame."

A clinician, who did not want to be named, said the courts were incredibly valuable, especially for those mental health patients who were legally not allowed to leave the Waikato Hospital campus.

This month the Waikato Senior Medical Staff Association [WSMSA] waded into the protest.

In a letter to management from Dr Alison Jackson the doctors said repurposing the courts with 40 car parks was short-sighted, amounted to destruction of DHB assets, and was not "a mere operational matter".

The doctors requested an open, transparent and robust consultative process over and evidence that proper process had been followed.

Waikato District Health Board member Mary Anne Gill wants better transport options for DHB staff and not more car parking. Photo / Alan Gibson
Waikato District Health Board member Mary Anne Gill wants better transport options for DHB staff and not more car parking. Photo / Alan Gibson

The DHB has two parking buildings with 2500 parks available to staff, as well as 6000 visitors each day to Waikato Hospital.

Board member Mary Anne Gill said staff should be encouraged to use, where they can, public transport.

She wanted the DHB to work closely with Waikato Regional Council to provide alternatives to driving to work.

Cardwell told the Herald the tennis courts were being converted to badly-needed parking.

"Our parking is under severe pressure. Often visitors can't find a park in our current parking buildings which are frequently full on peak days. We also have 200 staff on a waiting list to access parking."

- Additional reporting Peter Tiffany.