Public Pools for Everyone

Tom Ana

After years of austerity, many of Britain's swimming pools face closure due to spiralling energy costs – the alternative is a properly-funded system that treats them as a public good.

Before Covid-19, nearly half of the country’s 4000 pools were already at risk of closure. (Robert Daly / Getty Images)

Ripples have surfaced across the British pool industry this week after a survey by UKActive revealed that 85 percent of public pools are planning to reduce services, and more than half said staff cuts were likely. Before Covid-19, nearly half of the country’s 4000 pools were already at risk of closure. Now, as energy prices go soaring, the price of running pools is set to rise 150 percent, putting significant strain on an already ailing industry. Nothing short of a total collapse of our swimming pools seems inevitable without meaningful intervention.

This isn’t just a recent development. As neoliberalism eats up our society, consuming anything intended for public good and turning it into a financial transaction, the right to leisure is increasingly under threat. Like libraries, public toilets, and other frontline services, pools and leisure centres have been hit hard by cuts since the beginning of Tory austerity in 2010. In 2015 the Mirror reported that the country had already lost sixty pools; figures from Sport England said in 2016 and 2017 more than 100 more were shuttered. Many former council-run facilities have been handed over to private contractors, who have in turn slashed services and upped costs for users. The consequences for public wellbeing are significant: Swim England, the UK’s largest advocate for the sport and industry, described the loss of public pools as risking an ‘avoidable physical and mental health emergency’.

Where pools remain open, their benefits are obvious. The London Aquatics Centre in Stratford—built originally for the 2012 Olympics—offers an open pool seven days a week, and sessions to help people learn to swim, improve their fitness, and focus on their mental health. Generations mix, and members of the community gather to share the facility. But few are lucky enough to benefit from sites like these. Membership costs £30 a month, which isn’t an insignificant amount—but it’s more than £100 less than the closest Virgin Active, whose private pool offers nothing for young children, the elderly, or the community at large.

Since 2014, the London Aquatics Centre has been run by Better UK, a social enterprise that thrived under austerity through a model centred around taking on former council-run services and investing profits into further expansion. The group runs hundreds of gyms, leisure centres, pools, and libraries. But they now find themselves holding hundreds of contracts for pools which are increasingly financially unviable. When groups like Better give up local government contracts, the only alternative is likely to be to close down public pools.

Alongside austerity comes the ever-present threat of ‘redevelopment’, with old public baths regularly being transformed into hotels, bars, and luxury flats. ‘As [public baths] have disappeared from the placed we live they’ve been replaced with pricey commercial options that don’t facilitate connection and are often a car drive away,’ says Gabrielle Reason, a member of Community Sauna, a group in Hackney Wick aiming to provide a community-focused service on the site of the former public baths in the rapidly gentrifying East London neighborhood.

As with all attacks on public services, the potential pool crisis does not affect us all equally. British Olympians are more than four times more likely to have attended private school, while Britain’s poorest are significantly less likely to engage in regular exercise or sports. Poorer Brits, particularly in inner-city areas, are the ones most affected by leisure facilities closing and the least likely to have access to safe outdoor swimming. Not that open air swimming is a tempting prospect in much of the rest of the country: according to a report by pressure group ‘Top Of The Poops’, raw sewage was discharged into English bathing sites 25,000 times in 2021, driven almost entirely by water companies’ unwillingness to upgrade essential sewage infrastructure. Under the Tories, Britain faces a double blow of austerity and laissez-faire industrial regulation which is killing what should be a popular pastime accessible to everybody.

The question of rebuilding these public services is, of course, one around which the Left should rally. But it isn’t just a functional question. Sports and leisure are highly emotive topics that can drive otherwise ‘apolitical’ people to take action in their communities. Towns across the country regularly see community groups forming to call for local pools to remain open and be protected. In 2017 a group of squatters in Chorlton occupied the local former bath house, repairing and refilling its pool and reopening its saunas to the public, with free swimming on offer; but the collective was evicted, and the pool sat abandoned for the next five years. From radical collectives to the gentle ‘friends of the lido’, leisure and sport play a galvanising role.

In 2019, Labour recognised this and proposed a policy to empower football supporter’s trusts which would have given fans more power in how their teams are run. The idea, quickly abandoned under Starmer, imagined a society in which the everyday issues people care about, like sport and leisure, could form focal points around which communities could be empowered, and through which local movements could grow. So while nationalised municipal services should be the backbone of any left sports policy, they can be supplemented by measures that give local communities the ability to build and run the facilities to serve them: from overturning squatting laws brought in by Cameron to building community buy-back schemes and investing in infrastructure and subsidies, rebuilding our devastated public sports facilities requires a holistic approach.

Swimming in the UK saves the NHS and social care services an estimated £357 million a year. But the benefits can’t be framed as purely economic. Investment in public infrastructure is too often stated in cold terms that downplay the real meaning it has for the ordinary people who use it. The pursuit of leisure, in whatever personal or communal form that may take, is part of the world the Left struggles for. When we look at the closure of public pools, we aren’t just looking at the inherent inequalities and bad economics of a capitalist world; we’re looking at a world in which human joy and wellbeing is devalued. The alternative is one that prioritises health, happiness, and leisure for every member of the community.