Pulling the plug on our public baths: Kate Hamlyn and Ngaio Crequer on bad news for swimmers

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The Independent Online
MUNICIPAL swimming pools, including some fine examples of Victorian and 1930s baths, are under threat of closure as local councils struggle to keep within spending limits.

There is no statutory obligation to provide leisure services, so pools become ready targets for cuts. Nobody keeps an exact record of pools in the UK, but the Amateur Swimming Association estimates that there are about 1,270. In 1991 the Sports Council put the figure at more than 1,290, so at least 20 have closed in the past two years. The axe hangs over many others.

Last week there were scuffles outside the Grade II listed Victorian baths in Manchester as protesters objected to the city council's closure plan, prompted by a pounds 23m shortfall in its budget because of reduced government grants. The baths, with splendid examples of art nouveau, cost pounds 250,000 a year to run and essential repairs would cost pounds 1m.

In the London borough of Southwark, the Victorian pool at East Dulwich has been threatened since 1990. Only sustained campaigning by a local group has kept it open. The Glossop baths, in Sheffield, a Victorian complex with Turkish baths, has closed in the past two years. Teignside Pool, by the cliffs at Plymouth Hoe, built in 1928, is threatened, as is the Jubilee Pool in Penzance.

Swimming is now the most popular indoor sport in the UK and demand for pools will rise next year when it becomes compulsory in the national PE curriculum. Children are expected to be able to swim 25 metres by the age of 11, and 'demonstrate an understanding of water safety'.

The order making swimming lessons compulsory was delayed for two years to give schools time to ensure they had access to facilities. Originally, ministers had ruled out making swimming compulsory because they thought some schools would not be able to arrange this.

A sample of 1,500 schools surveyed by the Department for Education recently discovered that about 19 per cent were not providing swimming, but only 13 per cent of these would find it difficult to do so. Their chief reasons were difficulty in reaching a pool, or a lack of trained staff.

The department estimates that 10 45-minute swimming sessions should enable a child to reach the 25-metre target and ministers are confident that schools will be able to meet the requirements. Others are less sure. Some schools in Southwark, for instance, have found that travelling to a pool takes so long that lessons can last only 10 minutes. When swimming becomes a legal requirement, schools will not be able to charge parents for lessons or the cost of transport to the baths.

Parent-teacher associations are struggling to keep school swimming going. Margaret Morrisey, of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said that in the 1980s members raised funds to build many pools. 'The majority of them have become duckponds because nobody can afford to maintain them,' she said. 'Some schools no longer have their own bus to take children to lessons so they have to be cancelled. The Government may say that parents can always take their children to leisure centres, but not every child has that opportunity.'

Many threatened pools were originally built as a result of a 19th-century movement to provide public baths and wash- houses, prompted by the Victorian belief in mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). The unhygienic conditions of the urban poor, highlighted by a cholera epidemic in 1831-33, forced people to think about how the working classes could be kept clean. A Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1846 allowing local authorities to raise money to build public baths and wash-houses.

The object was 'to keep the masses healthy, clean, respectable and well-behaved', said Polly Bird, who has written a history of Dulwich baths in south London. Baths were typically decorated with tiles, wood panelling, stained glass and decorative ironwork. One of the finest examples, says Dr Richard Holder of the Victorian Society, is the 1890 pool at Leamington Spa, which is Grade II listed but threatened with redevelopment.

Originally, baths had separate entrances and sessions for men and women. Some had first- and second-class pools.

Leeds City Council has restored most of the glorious original features of the 1904 Bramley baths, but not the original water system, based on a 14-day cycle. The prices were highest on Day One, when the pool was filled with new water and bleach; prices and water quality would fall progressively until Day 14.

(Photograph omitted)