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Last Updated: Friday, 17 February 2006, 18:24 GMT
Britain's swimming pool SOS
By Martha Buckley
BBC News website

Swimming is Britain's most popular sporting activity, with 22% of adults and half of children going regularly and enjoying its well known health benefits.

Victoria Baths, Manchester
Victorian pools have grandeur but lack modern facilities

Yet the country's swimming pools are mired in a crisis brought on by years of under funding and neglect, with an estimated 500m repairs backlog.

The Victorian municipal baths, once the pride of Britain's big cities, are outdated and crumbling, while hundreds of council pools built in the 1960s and 1970s are reaching the end of their lifespans.

With councils unable to afford the work needed to bring them up to modern standards, or indeed to run them, many have simply been closed, often in the face of protests by local people.

A similar fate threatens Britain's outdoor lidos, as councils struggle to afford to maintain and run facilities that are popular in summer but barely used for the rest of the year.

Lottery cash

It's an issue on which passions run high, and over which local councils can be won or lost at election time.

The government insists the right steps are being taken to reverse the decline and that cash is going into swimming, including 300m of lottery money - more than to any other sport.

London Aquatic Centre, picture courtesy of New London Architecture
A brand-new aquatic centre is planned for the Olympics

Local authorities are expected to invest some 3bn in sport and leisure, including improving facilities, over the next three years, with another 1bn from Sport England.

And projects are under way to build new pools, including a multi-million pound aquatic centre in east London as part of preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

But experts from local authorities to the Amateur Swimming Association and Sport England agree there is still a massive investment shortfall.

The blame for the state Britain's pools are now in has been placed mainly on ever tighter council budgets, which for years left little money for the maintenance of "discretionary" services like pools.

Low priority

Councils have naturally tended to concentrate their resources on statutory services, such as education and social services, with leisure frequently bottom of the list.

No comprehensive record has been kept of how many pools have been lost.

According to the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), 11 new public access sites with 14 pools opened in 2005.

The government says 131 new pools with some kind of public access (including those with members-only access) have opened since 2004.

Kingsmeadow lido
Many former lidos are now closed and dilapidated
Data on how many pools closed in the same period is not yet available, though the ASA says it knows 45 public access pools closed between 2002 and 2004.

But the issue has moved up the political agenda, with steps now being taken to assess the true state of Britain's pools.

Sport England has compiled a database of facilities to help councils work together to plug gaps in provision.

And an Audit Commission report has been commissioned on the state of local authority pools.

Culture change

Another change is the inclusion for the first time of sports and leisure provision in local authorities' performance assessments, along with services such as education and health - a move which has been welcomed by Sport England, which hopes it will encourage investment.

Councillor Chris White, chairman of the Local Government Association's Regeneration Board says new rules allowing councils to borrow more should help too.

But what is also needed, according to Coun White, is for councils to start appreciating the importance of leisure facilities, in terms of health and community regeneration, rather than seeing them as an "add-on".

If an area goes 10 years without a pool that's two generations of primary school children who have grown up without one
Liz Hughes

Even when they are built, new pools are often beset with problems, in some cases due to poor planning or construction.

In the notorious case of the Clissold Leisure Centre in Hackney, east London, the building overran its original 7m budget by 20m, opened two years late and closed down again just two years later in 2003 because of major structural problems.

If or when the pool will reopen remains unclear.

And the stalwart bands of campaigners fighting for swimming pools are not always impressed with plans for shiny new leisure centres.

Some want old pools, such as Manchester's magnificent Victoria Baths, preserved as much for their historic character as for the swimming - a view not always shared by local authorities under pressure to meet modern standards.

Sign saying the Clissold Centre is closed
The Clissold Centre was only open for two years

Other campaigns, such as that to save the Ladywell Leisure Centre pool in Lewisham, south-east London, are being run despite the promise of a brand-new replacement from the council nearby.

The Ladywell pool - the main swimming facility in its borough - is earmarked for closure in 2007. Lewisham council has promised a replacement but this will not be ready until 2010.

Liz Hughes, of the London Pools Campaign, which represents several campaign groups, says: "A lot of campaigns are about pools where there's some kind of plan to replace it but people aren't happy with the plan or how secure it is.

"If an area goes 10 years without a pool that's two generations of primary school children who have grown up without one."

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