The debate over the future of the Kingfisher Leisure centre site is among the most hotly contested topics in Kingston.

Councillors from across the political spectrum have clashed with Kingston Council (RBK) and its leadership over the current plans to demolish the Kingfisher (which has been closed since 2019 amid roof damage concerns) and build a new and improved facility in the area by 2024.

Allegations of unrealistic timescales, lack of facilities for residents during the development stage and associated plans for new developments nearby have all been levelled by residents and Kingston councillors alike.

Speaking with the Surrey Comet, Kingston Council Leader Caroline Kerr vigorously defended the proposals that continue to attract scepticism and resistance from some in the borough.

"There are always naysayers and people who would rather stick with what we've got, even if it doesn't really make financial sense and lacks provision for the future... I think there's been a lot of scaremongering," she said. "We had to make a decision about putting council tax payers money into repairing an old building that didn't have much life left in it, or whether we should take the bolder decision to invest in future decades. Because this will be brilliant for Kingston over the next 40 or 50 years. That's braver than just trying fix the roof, but it's the right decision for the future of the town."

Among the most prominent issues swirling around the Kingfisher saga concerns timescale.

Just last month, senior Kingston Lib Dem councillor Jon Tolley quit the party over the Kingfisher plans, telling the Surrey Comet that RBK Leadership's communications on the proposals, and in particular the time they would take, were unrealistic.

"I don't think it's deliverable, I don't think we'll do it on time. It's completely avoidable. If we'd have just listened to experienced councillors who said these things...but it's inexperienced councillors making these decisions," he said.

Kerr responded by saying the estimates on completion were based on what the experts working with the council on the project had provided:

"We have been given a timeframe by the professionals who we have tasked to project manage this with us. They're best architects we can find... they are specialists in leisure centres, and I am working on their estimates. When it comes down to it, I would say you have to listen to the experts... big projects are difficult. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes there are hiccups... even with that caveat I am listening to the experts who tell me this is a realistic timescale," she said.

Another key criticism voiced by residents including many parents in the area like Tolley is the lack of a place to swim and to learn to swim for children while the Kingfisher is demolished and the new centre is built.

The Surrey Comet quizzed Kerr on the topic, who conceded it was a "obviously an area concern" and suggested the Malden Centre (in New Malden) was the best option for an alternative venue during the development period.

"We're advising people to look first to the Malden Centre... there are places for early years... it's harder in the later years. Obviously we're also suggesting our neighbours too, in Richmond and Elmbridge, whichever is the closest where they can get provision in the meantime. It isn't ideal, nobody would have wished for the Kingfisher to close, but it was unsafe and we had to close it," Kerr said.

Possibly the biggest controversy linked to the Kingfisher issue is the associated plans currently in the early stages to redevelop the area around it, including the Cattle Market site in central Kingston.

A councillor courted controversy recently when they leaked concept images from RBK that showed early stage architectural renders examining potential ideas for new developments at the Cattle Market site.

The images, which showed concept renders for high rise buildings in the area, stoked anger and outrage from Kingston residents online. Kerr refuted any suggestion that such plans were under consideration.

"We've never tried to hide the fact that building homes on the Cattlemarket, in our minds, makes sense. We have a housing shortage. We have incredibly steep housing targets that we are forced to meet (we're being asked to build 10,000 new homes in a decade). This is brownfield site... I would like for us to be building homes for people in need, whether that's our young people or our key workers. We are very committed to increasing the amount of social housing in the borough," the RBK leader said. "We're not at any kind of stage to present any detailed proposals for the Cattlemarket. When we are, we'll share those plans... The leaking of those documents was very disappointing. They were shared with a councillor in the strictest confidence because they are not drawings that anybody in our administration had agreed to," she added.

"As for the Kingfisher, we've done two major rounds of engagement, and we're going to do one more before we finalise the plans. We've asked people what they want and we've asked them what they think of what we're proposing, and then trying to adjust based on what they're saying. We want this to be something the whole community will love," Kerr said.