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NewStart Feature – communities left high and dry by swimming pool closures

Copyright Jack Harris

The Whitechapel Pool was built in 1901, renovated in the mid-1950s and was reputedly the site where David Hockney first made drawings of swimmers.

It was abandoned under Thatcher before being eventually sold to a housing developer who would turn it into a luxury hotel during Boris Johnson’s final year as Mayor of London.

Sound familiar?

Only this pool never existed. It was an art project displayed until January 2018 at the Whitechapel Gallery, which curator Laura Smith said ‘demonstrates how individuals are impacted by government policies.’

Since 2010, around one in five public swimming pools in the UK have closed their doors for good, not to be replaced by a new facility.

It’s left a hole in communities up and down the country that goes deeper than 2 metres, as New Start discovered.

Whitehill Club

Just before Christmas, Glasgow City Council announced they were considering closing 12 facilities in a bid to save over £1m a year.

Whitehill Pool was one of them, which came as a bitter blow to members of Whitehill Swimming Club, which was formed in 1977.

It’s volunteer-run with some being original members who teach and help with the club.

One is 31-year-old swimming teacher Laura who learnt to swim at Whitehill when she was 8.

She told New Start that the club will fold unless the council has a change of heart.

‘We have 200 members and have the most affordable swimming lessons in all of Glasgow,’ she says.

‘A lot of our members wouldn’t be able to afford to go elsewhere, not just monetarily but they wouldn’t be able to travel.

She says the disabled swimming club who come to Whitehill will be hardest hit. They’ve been let down before by swinging council cuts.

‘They already had a pool close so had to transfer to Whitehill, and to do that, they had to put on a bus for their members,’ she says.

‘The facilities at Whitehill suit their needs when a lot of pools wouldn’t.’

There must be some budget

A fiery town hall meeting last month saw councillors grilled by residents about the closure.

The swimming club started a petition to save Whitehill and by the time of the meeting it gained had over 2000 signatures in less than a week. To Laura, it proved what a cornerstone of the community the pool is.

‘It was a shock for them and over 200 people turned up,’ she says.

‘To lose the pool would be a major loss to the community,’ she adds.

To complicate matters the pool is attached to a high school, and residents are now concerned that if they get rid of the pool then the school could be next. Or that it will be one or the other.

‘Nobody is looking for facility against facility,’ says Laura.

‘The fight we want is to be able to get money from somewhere. There must be some budget.

It’s not a case of ‘use it or lose it’, either, and Laura estimates the pool welcomes 100,000 users a year and over 300 people a day.

‘We have a lot of elderly residents who go swimming and that’s where they see their friends, that’s how they get out of the house.’

‘It would be devastating to our swimmers.’

She says a community asset transfer would be difficult because it’s attached to the school, but it’s a method used by communities across the country to wrestle control of their civic spaces,  with Bramley Baths in Leeds being a famous example

The bathhouse, which first opened in 1904, was threatened with closure six years ago as austerity cuts hit local services. A group of residents came together to save the baths and worked with Leeds City Council on an asset transfer of the building, which re-opened as a social enterprise in 2013 and was eventually given a 50-year lease on the building by the council.

In their annual report, Bramley Baths showed it has proved its worth as both a local asset and business, recording the highest visitor numbers at the facility. Over 1000 children are learning to swim there each week, and 10 local teenagers have been trained as lifeguards.

The facility is now open seven days a week and employs 20 staff. Despite keeping entrance prices low, the organisation has generated a surplus of £63k this year which will be invested back into the business.

Mental health

The links between swimming with good mental health and wellbeing are well established.

Almost half a million (492,000) British adults with mental health conditions who swim say that they have reduced the number of visits to a medical professional regarding their mental health as a result of swimming.

And recent research in the London Borough of Hounslow found developing and designing sports activities in partnership with the local community could be key to meeting government targets for raising activity levels.

However, with mental health support services closing at an even quicker rate than swimming pools, some believe it’s compounding the mental health crisis in Britain, not to mention making people fatter.

Last year New Start visited two pools in Birmingham which are now swimming in the right direction after years of uncertainty, and are giving communities a place to meet, socialise and exercise.

Swimming pool closures are nothing new and the community in Bourneville fought bitter battles with the council in the 1980s to keep the Bourneville Lane Baths open. They failed and it stood derelict for over 20 years before the local authority sold some nearby land which freed up the funds needed to restore the baths, topped up with a £1.2m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Standing on a major artery into the city centre the listed building had become an eyesore, and it was looking like a matter of time before it would be demolished.

The building, renamed Stirchley Baths, boasts a range of classes, from Arabic to Zumba with just about everything in between. It’s also rented out for private functions, including weddings and business conferences.

Nearly three years on from opening, it’s a model that has given Stirchley a huge boost, with a SocialLifeUK survey of residents reporting 48% ‘strongly agreed’ and 34% ‘agreed’ with the statement ‘I feel an increased sense of pride or well-being since the Baths have been restored and reopened.’

Castle Vale

10 miles north east of Stirchley Baths is the Castle Vale housing estate.

In 2015 Ray Goodwin, chief executive of the resident-led charity on the estate was determined a similar fate to Bournville Road wouldn’t befall the Castle Vale pool, which was costing the council £250,000 a year and was earmarked for closure.

After the residents successfully took over the estate library, the city council approached them again to see if they’d be interested in running the swimming pool. After some initial hesitation they took it on, and it is now generating a surplus.

‘With health and wellbeing services closing there’s a correlation to obesity and breakdown of family units,’ says Goodwin.

‘Why else put yourself through the pain of running an enterprise, which is about people paying money, to keep a business going?’

‘We did it through blood, sweat and tears and a lot of people giving a lot of time and a lot of frustration. People gave everything to keep it going. It was sheer willpower. We turned something that was on paper financially inviable to something that’s viable.’

Last week Glasgow City Council announced that it would be giving Whitehill a reprieve.

It would survive, for now. But last week the authority also approved a ‘Property and Land Strategy’, which gave a green light to a potential fire sale of assets in the face of a £51m budget surplus for 2019.

Whitehill campaigners are worried that their battle isn’t over, and come next year they will be back in the deep end.

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