Swimming Blues

Jim Roberts laments the state of swimming pools in this country and their adverse effect on our health, well-being and his weekends.

In true British style, the first bank holiday this May was a washout.  With two kids under the age of ten, my first challenge was to quickly find something to do last-minute that didn’t involve an iPad.

I mustered the team at the crack of dawn and headed off to Worthing’s Splashpoint leisure centre, naively assuming that we were the only ones to think of it.  I mean, who wouldn’t permit themselves a lie-in on a rainy bank holiday Monday?  The answer, as it turns out, is a lot of people.  By 9:30 am, Splashpoint already had a timed entry system in place with the queue snaking back towards the front door and the receptionist frantically taking calls warning-off prospective swimmers.

This is not a criticism of Splashpoint.  The centre was completed in 2013 at a cost of £20m and notwithstanding some initial teething problems – mostly operational – the project is generally considered a great success that was 20-years in the making.  It has simply become a victim of its own success and, crucially, the failure of neighbouring Brighton and Hove to deliver its own facilities of even remotely comparable quality.  No one should have to travel 13-miles for a swim.

I’ve lived in Brighton since the late 1990’s and have seen the city’s swimming pools relentlessly degrade over this time.  It has a population of 270,000 – three times that of Worthing – served by only two public pools that are nearing, respectively, their 40th and 50th anniversaries.  It seems that that much promised Olympic-legacy all but bypassed Brighton, if it existed at all.

Frustratingly, Splashpoint’s 20-year development ordeal is being re-played at the King Alfred Centre re-development in Hove.

The latest proposals by Crest Nicholson would deliver a fantastic and much-needed new public swimming centre.  But, we’ve heard this all before.  Love it or hate it, Frank Gehry’s infamous scheme for the same site would have also delivered exceptional facilities.  That was scrapped shortly after the economic crisis in 2008.

As time ticks away – another 12-month delay was recently reported – and the housing market inflates further, the fear is that the latest scheme, and all its public benefits, is precariously balanced on the assumption of there being a buoyant residential market to absorb 560 premium priced new-build flats.  Without these sales there is no scheme, nor public benefit, and the decrepit King Alfred facilities will be forced to limp on for another economic cycle.

If the scheme does proceed then, at best, residents of Brighton and Hove will be making the journey to Worthing for at least another five years as the old facilities are razed to make way for new ones.  During that time, the city will be down to just one pool for its entire population.  The concept of keeping the King Alfred open until the new pool is completed was assessed by the council and Crest Nicholson but deemed unviable.  On such a constrained site this is understandable.  It’s also a very good reason to consider building the pool on a completely different site.

Okay, this is a bit of a rant about my spoiled weekend.  But there is a more general point.  This is a sad story that is repeating up and down the country.  We are not taking swimming seriously enough.  Swimming pools are expensive propositions, but they are important.  All too often, they are treated as a drain on public resources.  An easy target in times of austerity.  So we seem to be in a constant state of angst about finding a sustainable business model for swimming pools.  Can it be cross-funded by the cafe or paid for through the overage on a block of flats?  Do we make it bigger and add more lanes to attract the swim clubs or tack on a couple of loopy slides and make it a waterpark?

Why are we so intent on treating swimming as if it is just another sport?  It isn’t.  My son may never pick up a squash racket in his life, but I still don’t have to worry about him accidentally tripping and falling on a squash court.  No physical harm will come to him if he never learns to play rugby (I promise).  It is, on the other hand, possible, if not probable that he will one day slip and fall into a body of water.

Kids need to know how to swim.  Swimming pools are a public good – like roads and schools and hospitals.  We should go back to thinking of them that way.

The number of accidental drowning deaths in the UK each year hovers around 400.  Public swimming pools are not just a public benefit; they are a necessity for teaching our kids how to swim and avoid the dangers of deep water.  It’s about time government and local authorities acknowledged this and raised them higher up the agenda.

Image: Julian Abrams / Wilkinson Eyre Architects