KKP

Pools in crisis: rethinking the future

Swim England’s recent report, A Decade of Decline, paints a bleak picture of the future of swimming provision, challenging national and local government to recognise the need to replace ageing pools. Rachel Burke considers whether the thinking process might be just as important as the numbers.

 

Swim England’s recent report, titled A Decade of Decline: the Future of Swimming Pools in England, has highlighted the increasing pressure on sport and leisure facility finances. Coming at the stage of the Covid crisis that it did, the report has secured extensive coverage and raised the issue of the need for investment in facilities and opportunities to swim and be physically active.

It noted that more than 200 pools have closed, either temporarily or permanently, since the pandemic began and predicts that continuation of the current trend could see a 40% reduction in the number of pools in England by the end of the decade. Some 1,800 could be lost and, Swim England argues, too few new pools are being built to replace the facilities built and opened in the 1960s and 70s.

With the pandemic adding further pressure to stretched local authority finances and with physical activity a demonstrably important factor in mitigating the impact of Covid, Swim England’s predictions and warnings are timely and well founded. However, this is not a new issue. The debate about replacement of pools, in particular those opened at the point of local government reorganisation in the early 1970s, was in full flow well before the end of the 20th century. For the ‘more experienced’ members of the sector, it is sobering to note that even facilities built in 1990 are now more than 30 years old. Given that refurbishment and replacement is part of the natural process of facility management and provision, this problem is not going to go away.

One element of the report that did not gain many column inches (or the digital equivalent) was the emphasis on the importance of needs assessments and feasibility studies. “We encourage local authorities to conduct an analysis of their pool stock to understand whether they have the right pools in the right places to the meet the needs of the community, both now and in the future,” the report states. It also notes the value of Sport England’s Strategic Outcomes Planning Guidance (SOPG) and suggests that this should be made available to all local authorities.

This is perhaps the key point of the report. Data gathering and diligent analysis do not often make for attention-grabbing headlines but, as a consultancy practice with a reputation built on delivery of accurate needs assessments, feasibility strategies and supporting clients to implement their findings, KKP is pleased to endorse Swim England’s message. Having worked with numerous local authorities on SOPG, we concur with the value of Sport England’s approach. We also know, from work on projects that vary from the smallest community pools to the largest international multi-pool competition facilities, that getting “the right pools in the right places” is never quite as easy as this phrase makes it sound.

A substantial volume of work goes into the process. While facility development may never be an exact science, the application of extensive dataset/GIS-based demand evaluation, along with club, community and stakeholder consultation and decades of experience, makes for a better chance of delivering attractive, appropriately located, efficient and sustainable facilities that meet community needs and contribute to the wellbeing and liveability of the areas served.

The Decade of Decline report offers a clear challenge to government and local authorities in the face of the harsh realities of sport and leisure provision but it also suggests, albeit indirectly, the need for a new approach. If the closure of old pools is accelerating, new pools are needed and finances are tight, what should we be doing differently?

The obvious starting point is that, in general terms, stand-alone pools have had their day. It may also be that teaching pools (of larger size and with moveable floors) will be the key component of new developments, delivering lessons, a variety of warmer-pool, water-based exercise classes and options to cater imaginatively for the growing number of older people. This may mean some main pools having fewer lanes and becoming more significant adjuncts of the fitness offer as well as catering for club sessions, lane swimming and recreational use.

Swimming pool programming is a significant challenge. Balancing the demands of learn to swim, aquatic club use and casual swimmers is not easy without access to substantial water space. Where water space is limited, there is, in almost every case, an impassioned debate: clubs typically want more pool time for training, while operators are also looking to cater for the needs of casual and recreational swimmers.

The more financially ‘sustainable’ the pool needs to be, the more challenging the programming, especially at peak times. The need for income generation favours (full fee-based) swimming lessons and, to a lesser extent, club use. This can, however, be to the detriment of access for casual swimmers and those who need additional support to gain access to water-based activity.

Next might be a reassessment of the role of school sites. Community use of school facilities has a long history but the recent trend has been away from dual-use offers, in part because of the variety of facility management arrangements now ‘complicating’ this option. Access to existing dry-side school sports facilities, particularly sports halls, is adversely affected by the fact that they are commonly reserved by schools to host exams, school productions and cater for other large-space events.

One question worth asking: with so much housing development pressure on brownfield and green spaces, why not consider taking new pools to schools? In many areas, with the advent of high-capacity artificial grass, they may well have space to site a replacement pool. With good management and intelligent programming, it may be possible to use such a process to bring all their sports provision into more legally binding, accessible, year-round community use.

Larger primary schools may also offer co-location benefits. Where plans are still being drawn up for 1,000-pupil primary schools, why not explore the potential to include a teaching pool, fitness, a sports hall and perhaps a half-size artificial grass pitch and operate this on a joint-use basis with a partner for which extra-curricular time pressures will be far less onerous? The key and significant side benefit would be that learning to swim should receive the priority it surely merits.

Moving onto this issue, if school swimming lesson provision is a primary concern it is surely essential to consider its effectiveness per se. A substantial proportion of programmes take all children whether they can already swim or not, give them limited water time and must accommodate large numbers of pupils. The swimming value of the measured outcome of school swimming reflects its shortcomings. This is a key point because if this does not change, irrespective of the number, quality and modernity of pools, it will be the same children and young people who miss out.

If we are going to invest in pools, some of the programming focus surely needs to be on the people of all ages who cannot currently swim. The investment process and associated scheduling, marketing, pricing, leisure card and contractual management arrangements must balance commercial imperatives with the need to recognise that the majority of people who cannot swim, and therefore cannot enjoy the direct associated benefits that emanate from safety and water confidence, are, and always have been, from low-income families and/or disadvantaged communities.

Seen within the context of the Covid crisis and local government finances, it is undoubtedly true that a great many swimming pools in England and the rest of the UK face an uncertain future. Many need to replaced; even more need refurbishment. A century of investment in public swimming facilities has demonstrated the value of swimming to public health and wellbeing. However, if that investment is to continue it is essential that fundamental questions are asked before more money is ‘poured into the ground’: why do we need pools; who are they for; what should they achieve; how must they be managed and programmed; and what should they look like?

The answers are as varied as the communities and interests that each swimming pool serves but, with a few decades of experience, we know which questions to ask.

 

Rachel Burke is a principal consultant with KKP.

 

A Decade of Decline: the Future of Swimming Pools in England is published by Swim England and available via the Swim England website:

https://www.swimming.org/swimengland/decadeofdecline/

Active travel: a low-key revolution

During the Covid-19 crisis active travel has emerged as one of the leading influences on urban policy and design. Andy Fawkes and Chris MacFarlane consider the background to a renewed focus on public transport, walking and cycling, and why it strikes a chord with so much of KKP’s strategy work.

 

Active travel has always been a fundamental part of KKP’s approach to facility strategies of all kinds and, while some of the terminology may have evolved over the 30-plus years KKP has been working with clients to improve their facilities and environments, the fundamental principles of how and why people move are largely unchanged.

Policy drivers, such as climate emergency, air quality and health inequalities, have been moving active travel up the agenda for many organisations and authorities for some time. The impact and experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic then added a new perspective. Now a different balance between public and private transport has become part of a national debate, with walking and cycling increasingly recognised as more than just a convenient way of getting from A to B for a minority of people.

Travel and transport have always been key components of the processes that underpin KKP’s approach to strategies for indoor and outdoor facilities of all kinds. The four pillars of our strategic approach are quantity, quality, availability and accessibility, making walk and drive times, along with public transport, part of the mix for any project. There is always a balance between car use and active travel but in more densely populated environments walking, riding and taking the bus or tram are important factors.

In recent years central government policy has reflected growing interest in renegotiating the balance between motor traffic and active travel. In 2017 the Department for Transport issued technical guidance for local authorities on local cycling and walking infrastructure plans (LCWIP) with the aim of doubling cycling rates and significantly increasing walking rates by 2025. The guidance encourages councils to deliver better safety, better mobility and better streets “to make walking and cycling the natural choices for shorter journeys or as part of a longer journey”.

In July 2020, in the midst of a pandemic that had challenged attitudes to so many aspects of our lives, the Department for Transport published Gear Change, “a bold vision for cycling and walking” that it hopes will bring a “travel revolution in our streets, towns and communities.” It was accompanied by Local Transport Note 1/20 Cycle Infrastructure Design, providing national guidance for the design and implementation of cycle schemes. For the first time national standards for cycle infrastructure are laid out: “There are five core design principles which represent the essential requirements to achieve more people travelling by cycle or on foot, based on best practice both internationally and across the UK. Networks and routes should be Coherent; Direct; Safe; Comfortable and Attractive.” [LTN 1/20 1.5.1]

The UK’s big cities have been leading the way in accepting the challenge presented by national government policy. Birmingham recently announced proposals to remove through traffic from the city centre, reversing half a century of transport planning decisions that had given primacy to private motor travel. Manchester is well advanced in its plans to promote cycling as part of an extensive reimagining of travel in and around the city. Backed by the mayor, Chris Boardman has used his position as the city’s first transport commissioner to develop and promote the Bee Network, planned to become the UK’s largest walking and cycling network.

Manchester is a good example of the recognition of, and a new emphasis on, the link between active travel and physical activity. The city has a network of sport and leisure facilities that are well used. Facilities with national and international recognition are part of Manchester’s plan to attract visitors and investment but they are also central to an ongoing campaign to encourage and enable local residents to make these centres their own. Greater Manchester’s Moving More strategy is building on the city and region’s achievements in terms of its facilities and transport networks to help address significant health equalities. With car ownership comparatively low, public transport, walking and cycling are important aspects not only of accessibility but also the city’s health.

Beyond the big cities, a shift in recognition of the potential of walking and cycling is also having an impact. The LCWIP guidance is fairly recent in policy terms but it is increasingly part of local authority thinking about travel, accessibility, planning and design. While an LCWIP imposes new requirements on councils, it also has begun to have a positive influence on design and implementation of schemes as well as providing a route to funding.

If architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was right and God is in the details, then the new walking and cycling policy documents offer plenty of opportunities to observe the divine. LTN 1/20 has enough detail to entrance even the most dedicated infrastructure aficionado. Setting standards against which every cycle infrastructure project will be judged, LTN 1/20 could, if properly embraced, transform the UK’s cycling landscape. The LCWIP guidance provides a route through the synergies and integrations, including the stakeholders and data, to create a public realm that people can use safely, confidently and enjoyably. The Propensity to Cycle tool within the LCWIP guidance provides access to the skills and abilities required for new approaches to accessible and equitable spaces, offering mapping and impact modelling to assess the impact that policy and design decisions could have. This tool also includes guidance on making the business case for walking and cycling, an essential part of the armoury of change.

Facility planning is always a balance: of buildings and behaviours; of mapping and mindsets. These new policies, both national and local, driven by issues of transport, health and environment have begun to shape the planning process and have the potential to change the way our towns and cities look and feel. The reasons people move around may still be the same and our four strategy pillars of quantity, quality, availability and accessibility remain intact but there are now huge opportunities to change the way we understand our urban spaces and the way movement shapes them and us.

Policy statements are traditionally long on lofty visions and bold statements but a new understanding of what makes walking and cycling easier and more appealing as part of active travel could have a profound impact on the culture of our cities. Giving more thought and more space to two feet and two wheels could be the catalyst for a low-key revolution.

 

Andy Fawkes and Chris MacFarlane are principal consultants with KKP

 

November 2021

 

Notes and references:

Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans: Technical Guidance for Local Authorities
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/908535/cycling-walking-infrastructure-technical-guidance-document.pdf

Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/904146/gear-change-a-bold-vision-for-cycling-and-walking.pdf

Cycle Infrastructure Design: Local Traffic Note 1/20
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/951074/cycle-infrastructure-design-ltn-1-20.pdf

The Bee Network
https://activetravel.tfgm.com/bee-network-vision/

The Propensity to Cycle Tool
https://www.pct.bike/

KNIGHT KAVANAGH & PAGE