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Swimming pools: Is a lack of decent swimming facilities causing fewer people to swim?

There are now fewer people swimming regularly than there were 10 years ago. Could the decline be blamed on a lack of decent facilities? Tom Walker investigates

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 1
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
A deeper issue / © shutterstock/Microgen
A deeper issue/ © shutterstock/Microgen

Despite efforts to get more people in the pool, the number of regular swimmers has fallen steadily in the past 10 years. Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey 2016 showed that the number of adults swimming at least once a week had fallen by nearly a quarter (23.7 per cent) in the past decade. During 2015-16, only 2.5 million people swam weekly – compared with 3.27 million in 2005-06.

The lack of swimming teachers and lifeguards is well documented, but are facilities also to blame? Are there enough pools? Or is it a case of enough water, but a lack of diversity in the pool offer? Does the current pool stock cater for everyone?

According to Dave Candler, CEO of the Swimming Teachers Association, the answer regarding the number of pools is simple. “No, we don’t have enough,” he says.

“The number of swimming pool closures over the past five years outweighs the number of openings in both the public and private sector. Demand for water time has become an increasing issue, particularly for the burgeoning private swim school market, which relies on hiring pools for lessons.”

Candler’s view is shared by Jane Nickerson, CEO of Swim England, the governing body for swimming. “I think we’ll always need more pools,” she says.

“In the past 17 years since 2000, we’ve only had 400 new public pools built in England. That isn’t a lot, when you consider how many have closed.

“There certainly are places in the country which no longer have adequate provision – such as London and Birmingham, where capacity is well below the national average.”

Both Candler and Nickerson add that there is also an issue with some of the country’s existing pools. “We have many excellent, well-run facilities, but the problem is that we have a lot of ageing stock too, which is expensive to repair, maintain and run,” Candler explains.

“Someone has to subsidise these pools, but with budget cuts it’s not always been feasible, hence the closures we’ve sadly seen throughout the 2000s and 2010s.”

According to Mike Hall, partner at sports architects FaulknerBrown, which specialises in pool design, the problem is two-fold.

“Firstly, a lack of investment in leisure has left us with a pretty grim legacy of unattractive facilities,” Hall says. “Secondly, the typology needs to adapt to meet the changing demands of society. Some of the pools are in the wrong place, inefficient to operate or not attracting people.”

Nickerson agrees. “We have nearly 500 pools that are more than 50 years old, so there’s a need to renew the stock.”

To its credit, the government hasn’t entirely sat on its hands when it comes to efforts to improve the country’s swimming pools and some funding has been earmarked for the cause. Between 2017 and 2021, Sport England will provide Swim England with £12.16m in order to encourage more people to start swimming, while a further £25m will be invested, through the Strategic Facilities Fund, to construct 21 new leisure facilities – which will include a number of swimming pools.

Earlier this year, sports minister Tracey Crouch announced that the government is also setting up an “implementation group” to explore the recommendations from the school swimming report, published in July 2017. The Swim Group Review of Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Lessons report found that 31 per cent of Year 6 pupils will finish their schooling without being able to swim and without basic water safety skills – this despite both skills being stated within the national curriculum.

The report’s 16 recommendations include making new resources available for all those involved in delivering school swimming lessons – including pools. A key aspect of the government working group’s focus, according to Crouch, will be to find ways to work more closely with local authorities and private operators in order to make “better use of facilities”.

Mike Hall says that any spending on swimming should be seen as an investment with a high return. “The data coming out of Sheffield Hallam University, from the likes of professor Peter Taylor, suggest that every £1 of financial investment delivers £3.15 of social return on investment,” Hall says.

“That means that investment in swimming can only be a good thing for society. That said, the immediate financial challenges are ever present and we need to accept that we may need fewer, more appropriately designed pools.”

What, then, should the approach to improving pools be? Candler believes that, while there is a need for more facilities, more could be done with the current stock. “We need to ensure the existing pools fulfil their potential – not only from a financial viewpoint, but also to encourage more people to use the facility,” he says.

“Pool programming – fitting everyone in at a time everyone wants – is one of the biggest issues. Pools are an expensive commodity and with many council pools now not subsidised, timetabling is even more of an issue, with the most profitable sessions given a priority to cover costs.

“We’ve seen first-hand that getting the timetable right and offering a more diverse range of activities helps to maximise the pool space and increase revenue.”

Nickerson emphasises that when a decision is made to build a new pool, it should cater for the entire community – including special populations.

“It’s all about putting the right pool in the right place,” she says. “We need to make sure that when we do build or redevelop pools, they’re right for the community they’re going to serve. For example, if we want to include the entire community, we need to cater for those who don’t want windows in the pool area, or need separate changing villages, such as Muslim women.”

Nickerson is also fully on board with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s recent calls to transform the UK’s leisure centres into “community wellness hubs” by joining up a number of services. Grey-Thompson’s vision is to combine swimming pools and gyms with GP drop-in centres, libraries and police services, creating a new “preventative frontline” for the NHS in the process.

“I think Tanni’s right – what we should do is have pools acting as the heartbeat of the community,” Nickerson says. “Get the pools next to a library, a GP surgery or a school and make them part of a real community-based centre that everyone can go to.”

For Hall, designing more attractive and customer-friendly pools is key. “We need to make these facilities more attractive and engaging for a range of users,” he says.

“For the last 20 years, much sporting policy and funding in aquatics facilities has been driven by lane swimming – and indeed this is as important for health as revenue-generating lessons – but the reality is our efforts to increase participation should cover a wide spectrum of activity.”

Does size matter? Examining the case for smaller pools

Are developers and operators too focused on providing 25m pools? Might smaller pools, which could be cheaper to build and operate, work better – especially when looking to attract families and children?

As the national governing body for swimming, we need a sufficient number of 50m pools and 25m pools with 10 lanes for competition purposes. The smaller training pools can, however, have much lower running costs and can do the job for a community very well.

It’s true that the more teaching pools you have, the more children you’re going to teach to swim. But if you want to keep them in the water, you need to provide them with the next step too. If all you have is a teaching pool, have you then got a larger pool for lane swimming? If there’s a 25m pool close by, that’s fine because some will travel to it.

It’s about providing appropriate facilities that match the community’s specific needs – and that’s what we should really be pushing for.

The new 25m pools that are being built are fantastic for the communities they serve, but in addition to these I’d like to see more fun pools being created – ones that incorporate fun activities, like flumes, pirate ships and rapids, to encourage more people/families to actively participate.

We want more people to go to their local pool and enjoy the water on a regular basis, and for pools not just to be a hole in the ground filled with water.

Dave Candler proposes building more “fun pools” to attract families and kids / © shutterstock/atikinka
Dave Candler proposes building more “fun pools” to attract families and kids/ © shutterstock/atikinka
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