The Guardian view on swimming pools: a public good for everyone

Public goods for all, or private luxury for some? There is perhaps no greater symbol of these opposing visions than Rishi Sunak’s new private swimming pool. The prime minister’s heated pool consumes so much energy that he apparently paid for the local electricity network to be upgraded to meet its power demands. Meanwhile, many council-run swimming pools are underfunded and struggling. Almost 400 have closed in England since 2010, the majority in poorer areas. Writing recently of proposals to close a leisure centre in Gateshead, one GP warned that removing facilities from a deprived area would see “increases in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, long-term sickness and deaths”.

So it is good news that the spring budget will offer a one-off £63m grant to help public leisure centres with heating bills and energy efficiency measures. But this temporary lifeline will only stop some pools from closing in the short term: many will need more sustainable funding. It also does nothing to reopen those that have already shut. Sustained investment is needed to address the prolonged struggles that leisure centres face. Many were built in the 1960s and 70s, when spending was more generous; some have not been refurbished for more than two decades, and are becoming too old to upgrade. Even before the energy crisis, half of Britain’s pools were at risk of closure. Some need drastically retrofitting, while others need rebuilding altogether. Without a long-term plan, the risk is that many leisure centres – like other features of England’s dilapidated public realm – will fall into a state of managed decline.

We hear much about the NHS crisis. The crisis playing out in leisure centres attracts less attention, but is still hugely significant to people’s health. An estimated 66% of NHS cancer rehabilitation services take place in leisure centres. Pools are particularly useful for those who might otherwise struggle to exercise, such as elderly and disabled people. Their preventative benefits are clear: in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the council has developed a partnership where GPs can book patients directly on to exercise schemes. The programme has reduced the number of bariatric surgery operations by 80% in an eight-year period, saving the NHS an estimated £2.5m.

Leisure centres could form part of a broader national public health strategy. Yet this government shows little interest in public health – or indeed the idea that there might be a “public” beyond the marketplace of individual consumers. Councils are still awaiting their health budgets for the year ahead, making it almost impossible to commission services. In England, the cynical decision to scrap Public Health England in 2020 has not reversed the deep cuts to spending. Because leisure centres are a discretionary service, they are vulnerable to cost-cutting, despite 72% of primary schools relying on publicly provided pools to deliver their statutory responsibility for children to learn to swim. Resources are skewed to wealthy regions. Nearly four-fifths of 11- to 12-year-olds can swim in the richest parts of England – more than twice the proportion in the poorest areas.

When a swimming pool or leisure centre closes, it registers as a sense of loss. One of the main things that people said they were missing in a recent poll of “left behind” areas in the so-called “red wall” were leisure and sports facilities – above jobs, housing or transport. Sports and leisure can galvanise communities. Providing a long-term plan to safeguard their future should be one of Mr Sunak’s priorities.

  • Original Article: The Guardian
  • Date: March 2023