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: