A FORMIDABLE alliance of swimmers, leading local politicians, city centre residents and heritage campaigners was powerless to derail the district council's plans to rebuild the Westminster Lodge sports centre last night.

In the build up to the controversial planning committee meeting, the scheme's critics used Lib Dem election leaflets extolling the scheme to force deputy chairman Martin Frearson to step down, but failed to displace chairman Chris Brazier, whose casting vote was crucial.

Outside the council offices, demonstrators from the Pool Too Small campaign were joined by the St Albans Civic Society, some muttering darkly about political manipulation of the planning process.

Inside the chamber, Tories Salih Gaygusuz and Gordon Myland, and Labour leader Roma Mills, claimed the meeting was invalid and could improperly influence next week's election.

But legal officer Charles Turner, quoting a High Court precedent, said the meeting could proceed with Councillor Brazier in the chair.

Campaign leader David Gilroy told the committee the proposed 25-metre pool eight-lane pool would admit only nine more swimmers than the existing 33-metre six-lane facility.

He said: "This a poisoned chalice that will haunt us all for decades.

"Don't let our people and future generations down with this expensive, inadequate, unanalysed and unjustified application.

"Have courage and wisdom and send it back to the drawing board."

His objections were echoed by Peter Trevelyan of the St Albans Civic Society, who said: "The design is poor, and the visual and landscape impact is unacceptable."

Kate Newton of St Stephens Hill said the proposed site, only a few yards from the existing building, was very close to her home, and would cause light pollution and noise as well as spoiling views.

But Stephen Jepson, a consultant working for the council, said: "The new centre will replace the council's ageing leisure centre , which has high maintenance costs, is inefficient and at the end of its economic life."

Planning officer Alan Moorhouse said there had been about 90 letters of objection and a petition with some 700 signatures.

But he told the meeting : "These objections are operational matters for the council - they are not planning issues for this committee."

Council leader Robert Donald said it would be irresponsible to commit the authority to fund the ten-lane 25-metre pool demanded by campaigners.

His Lib Dem ally Geoff Harrison pointed out that the new leisure centre would have a learner and "confidence" pool in addition to the main swimming area, with an overall increase in water space of 33 per cent.

After a defeated motion to defer the decision until after next week's election - which may alter political control - the main vote was tied, with four Lib Dem members balanced by three Tories and one Labour.

Despite the shouts and groans, few were surprised when Councillor Brazier's casting vote ensured the cabinet's victory.

Read how we broke the news last night by clicking the link below.