The London Pools Campaign

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Our new Mayor‘s sports adviser, Kate Hoey, says she wants the Olympics to bring benefits to pool-starved communities across London. Liz Hughes, founder of London Pools Campaign, looks at the job in front of her

  • The London Pools Campaign

    Haggerston Pool was closed by Hackney Council to save just £300,000

  • I became a pool campaigner in February 2000 when Hackney Borough Council closed our local pool in Haggerston for the sake of £300,000, while at the same time spending £32 million building a pool in Stoke Newington.

    Hundreds of local residents turned up to protest but the council was in financial chaos and the press found it unsurprising that a pool in a poor part of Hackney was closing – and it didn’t help that we couldn’t even drum up a local celebrity.

    We found five other pool campaigns (Marshall Street, Swiss Cottage, Poplar Baths, London Fields Lido and Brockwell Lido), and in 2003, when Tower Hamlets Council proposed the closure of York Hall Baths we joined the campaign, marching through Bethnal Green with the boxing club shouting, ‘Save our swimming!’ and us, a bit hesitantly, ‘Save our boxing!’

    York Hall was saved. One pool closure was unfortunate but several was a story: journalists too had children in school who were not learning to swim, a local pool that was run-down and dirty – unlike the pools in Europe they saw on holidays – and many knew of a pool campaign in their area. So the London Pools Campaign was launched.

    A city of lidos

    Herbert Morrison, leader of the London County Council in the 1930s, spearheaded the lido building boom as part of the enthusiasm for sunbathing and the great outdoors that gripped London between the wars. Pools were mainly a result of the fitness-centre craze of the 1970s, but both kinds of swimming arena are now in trouble: London has lost 58 lidos since their heyday in the 1930s – just 12 remain and many pools were landed on the local councils (with no extra budget) when the GLC closed in 1986. When big bills came in, many simply closed. Lidos are easier to rescue than pools, requiring a mere £2-£3m. Add a roof, and the price jumps.

    Hoey’s plans

    Large-scale funding for pools has traditionally been supported by Sport England. But with much of their budget switched to the Olympics, I asked the LDA what there would be for London swimmers in the legacy. It said the current plan is for the Olympic aquatic centre in Stratford, a training programme for umpires and coaches and contributions to the development of Crystal Palace and Hillingdon pools. We have been campaigning for a lido opening program, a pool within 15 minutes’ walk of every Londoner and a trust to hold a fund for pools to bid into for maintenance and refurbishment bills – all of which would benefit the mass of Londoners. London has five fewer pools than it did 15 years ago but the real losses go unrecognised: leisure centre training pools, school and college pools, and a ‘health-and-safety’ agenda which has led to the near eradication of diving facilities. I put all this to Kate Hoey, sports advisor to the new London Mayor – and long-time supporter of pool campaigns. She says: ‘Swimming is very, very important to me – I see no point in an Olympic Games which gives us one brilliant facility, while local pools are run down and closed. We’re shifting the emphasis – the Olympics has to make a difference to every community, rather than being a regeneration program in east London and a great event.’

    The fight continues

    As well as Haggerston, long-running campaigns continue for Poplar Baths, Forest Hill Baths (due to be demolished, but a replacement is promised) and swimming in Bury Lake, and new campaigns emerge: in the past few weeks Redbridge Council announced the closure of Redbridge Pool at the end of this year, with no promise of a replacement.

    It’s about the money

    A spokesperson for Sport England says that over the past three years there have been more openings than closures, and points out that more than £300m has been invested in UK pools since the National Lottery began in 1994. But they also point out that public pools run at a deficit (about £100,00 a year for a 25-metre, six-lane pool) and acknowledge that many of the new pools are commercial. So what about Haggerston Pool? Hackney Borough Council, now financially healthier, has a plan for it to become a ‘Healthy Living Centre’ with a 25-metre pool, which would make a huge difference to this area. But, at £21m, this is an expensive project and while some money will come from the council, the question remains: where to find the rest?See www.londonpoolscampaign.com for more information.

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