More than 100 campaigners – and two ponies – turned out for a protest against the possible closure of Cardiff Riding School this afternoon, prior to a council meeting where the Labour administration said it would need to make £27 million in cuts to balance its 2013/2014 budget, and £100m worth of savings between now and 2017/2018.
Riders with placards and chants of “save our ponies!” gathered outside City Hall after news was leaked yesterday that staff at the Pontcanna-based equestrian centre had been told the school was under threat. 13 permanent and 14 part-time staff are currently employed by the council-run centre, and there were fears that if the centre were to close, some of the stable’s 39 horses and ponies would have to be put down.
But delivering his budget announcement speech to a meeting of the full council tonight, Cardiff finance chief Councillor Russell Goodway said that “it is not and never has been” the council’s intention to close the riding school.
He said: “It is the council’s intent to explore the possibility of the school being operated by an external party.”
He said this was being done to relieve the council of the burden of the school’s £22,000 budget deficit. If the proposal is accepted as part of the council’s 2013/2014 budget and another operator is found, the stable’s employees would no longer be employed by the council.
But the suggestion of finding someone else to operate the stables was greeted with scepticism by the school’s supporters in the public gallery, with one interrupting the meeting to shout “who would take it on?”
Independent councillor Adrian Robson said he thought the issue had been handled “appallingly” over the last 24 hours by the Labour administration, and that many councillors had had to find out about the proposal through Twitter.
Councillor Neil McEvoy, who tabled a motion which saw the session adjourned for 15 minutes so cabinet members could meet the protesters, later asked the cabinet member for sport, leisure and culture Huw Thomas to publicly guarantee that the riding school would stay open.
Coun Thomas replied: “I do not think it is appropriate to comment at this point in the budget process.”
Prior to the meeting more than 100 campaigners, including children and disabled riders, gathered outside City Hall with two ponies.
Protesters included Jane Fuller, whose 15-year-old daughter Lowri has been riding at the school for the last 18 months.
Lowri has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and when she began horse riding she had a curvature of the spine.
But, following lessons at the centre, Jane said her daughter’s curved spine had been corrected.
She said: “She also had a leg length disparity – her legs are now the same length and that is due to the expertise of her riding instructor.
“There’s literally no where else for her to go. She has problems travelling.
“Riding has done so much for her self esteem. If you imagine all the things she can’t do in life, this is one thing she can do.”
Mia Jensen, from Pontcanna, keeps her horse Picasso at Cardiff Riding School, and also helps out at the centre.
She said: “It would be a huge loss for the disabled community, and for the riding community in general. People of all ages and abilities ride there.
“We see children who refuse to go to school. They get qualifications with the school. Older people who have always wanted to try riding but have never had the time take it up until later in life – it becomes a whole social life for them.
“There are only two council-run stables in the whole of the UK. It makes Cardiff special, it’s something to be proud of. We will not give up.”