A raft of swimming pool closures means millions are set to lose out on the benefits of swimming. Is it time you made a splash to save yours?

Studies show swimming to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression, maintaining a healthy weight and warding off heart disease and diabetes. Yet according to Ukactive, a lack of staff, rising energy costs and chemical shortages have created ‘a perfect storm’ for leisure centres. Freedom of Information requests to UK councils revealed 65 pools had shut temporarily or permanently in the three years to March 2022. Board member Grey Whyte said the closures represented an ‘absolute health and welfare disaster’.

Given ongoing turbulent economic times, this could continue to adversely affect leisure provision. Should we act on it now?

The importance of learning to swim

More people drown each year than lose their lives in road cycling accidents and house fires, highlighting one reason why swimming is a compulsory part of the UK’s primary school curriculum. Yet one in four children in England leaves primary school unable to swim the recommended distance of 25m.

The World Health Organisation says children from ethnic minorities or socially disadvantaged backgrounds are the worst affected and most at risk of drowning. Figures from Sport England revealed that 80 per cent of Black children and 78 per cent of Asian children cannot swim. A staggering 86 per cent of children from wealthy families can swim unaided on leaving school compared with just 42 per cent of the least affluent.

And it’s not just an issue of safety. Swim England’s Value of Swimming report shows that swimmers have higher levels of wellbeing than non-swimmers and are happier and healthier. They also show higher levels of self-confidence. Doesn’t everyone deserve those advantages?

The benefit of the community element

While the factors contributing to these figures are complex, it’s quite clear that swimming pool closures only exacerbate the problem, reducing the availability of swimming lessons and preventing people from accessing affordable, local swimming.

Jane Nickerson, Swim England’s chief executive, said it was saddening and alarming to see pools be forced to close:

‘People rely on these vital facilities for their physical and mental wellbeing as well as for teaching children a life skill that could one day save their life. It will be a travesty if the Government doesn’t recognise how valuable they are to society.’

Community pools offer the chance to learn and leisure together with friends and family, as well as educate and develop sporting talent. Both indoor and outdoor facilities allow the full range of health benefits to be enjoyed within a communal space.

It’s no coincidence that a recent revival of lidos, the open-air swimming pools first given to us by the Victorians, has been accompanied by the growing popularity of open water and wild swimming. Whilst some love the adventurous opportunity open water brings, the outdoor pool offers a safer confine for many.

So, given the variety of benefits community pools offer, surely there’s a cause to be fought.

How do we reinvigorate the love for community pools?

1. Give the community a voice

One solution is community buyouts of local authority-owned pools. Action groups in affected locations including Cumbria, Avon and East Sussex have petitioned and successfully applied for community asset transfers allowing them to manage struggling pools for the community.

In Bristol, around 150 council-owned properties are leased to voluntary and community organisations through community asset transfer (CAT) arrangements including short-term licences and long-term leases.

‘Local people are often best placed to manage community facilities in their area,’ explains a council spokesperson. ‘They already make extensive use of these assets and their local knowledge and hands-on management often result in lower overheads and better value for money. Community organisations also use volunteers and take great pride in their local area.

‘Managing these facilities helps to empower local communities and can bring opportunities for greater independence and financial sustainability. When done well, CAT can create lasting change in local neighbourhoods.’

2. Gather support

Successful campaigns usually begin with gathering enough support within the community and collecting names in the form of a petition as well as a database of interested parties. It’s important to find out who owns the pool and on what basis. When Buckfastleigh Parish Council began its bid to take over their local pool they discovered that the pool was not actually owned by Teignbridge District Council but had charitable status. This meant the council could choose to close the pool but the only thing they could do with the cash from selling the land was use it to build another local pool. This meant the council was more willing to consider a community takeover.

3. Seek professional guidance

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from experts. Chris Romer-Lee of architecture practice Studio Octopi, has been involved in many early campaigns, a number of which have gone on to raise sufficient funds to engage architects, business planners, pool specialists, planning consultants and so on. Professionals with experience in building and maintaining pools can provide valuable support and expertise across areas such as accessibility, safety and maintenance.

4. Create funding opportunities

Once you have your people in place, it can be helpful to look into setting yourselves up as a charity or community interest company, which allows groups to access the widest range of grants and other funding. Again, there is a lot of support available on how to do this. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations offers help via training and events and can advise on topics from winning funding for your project to managing volunteers.

5. Publicise

Make it a priority to spread the news about what you are doing and what progress you have made via newsletters, press releases and a website if you have one. And don’t forget to lobby your local MP to ensure the issue of pool closures remains at the forefront of debate. Websites such as theyworkforyou.com make it easy to find out the name of your MP, tell you what they have been working on in Parliament and tell you where you can write to them. Writetothem.com allows you to enter your postcode and find the politicians that represent you — you can even email them directly via the site.

And for an even greater overview of MPs’ responsibilities and powers, check out ShoutOut’s Political Literacy e-learning course, which explains the democratic process and will equip you with the tools and confidence to make lasting changes on the issues that matter to you most.

Given we live on an island surrounded by water, it’s impossible not to see the benefit of everyone having equal opportunity to accessible local surroundings where they can safely learn and enjoy swimming. Social, sports and health benefits only underline the importance of keeping our community pools afloat.