Caught in a turn of the tide

Swimmers have enjoyed Cornwall's sea pools for 75 years, but now the fun may be about to end. Is health and safety bureaucracy to blame? Rich Cookson plunges into controversy
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Bude Sea Pool is quiet and still this morning. It's a few minutes before seven and there's barely a ripple on the water's surface. As Atlantic breakers gently roll onto the deserted beach, a couple of hundred metres behind us, the early morning sun is starting to burn through the cloud, changing the pool's placid waters from grey to deep blue.

Bude Sea Pool is quiet and still this morning. It's a few minutes before seven and there's barely a ripple on the water's surface. As Atlantic breakers gently roll onto the deserted beach, a couple of hundred metres behind us, the early morning sun is starting to burn through the cloud, changing the pool's placid waters from grey to deep blue.

Then the children arrive - 200 of them, marching over the brow of the hill, towels flapping. There's some last-minute adjusting of goggles and tightening of trunks as they stream down the path to the pool-side. They kick off their shoes, line up and jump in. They leap, five at a time, into the water and thrash towards the shallow end, letting out involuntary gasps and grunts because the water - topped up by last night's high tide - feels so cold. By the time the last ones have dried off and walked back up the hill, a handful of locals have arrived for their morning exercise. Others arrive and slip in the water alongside them. And so it goes on every summer morning: a daily ritual that locals and visitors have enjoyed for 74 years.

Pam Belverstone has swum here for 24 years. "I don't like swimming in the sea and much prefer the pool," she says. "I've got three boys who are seven, 12 and 14, and they swim in it throughout the year. North Cornwall's coast is so dangerous that you need something like this."

There's only ever been one serious accident at the pool, but a few weeks ago the local council closed it down on health and safety grounds. Officials said that the water in the pool was too cloudy, posing a risk for people jumping in, and making it impossible for lifeguards to see anyone drowning. Despite having been given special permission to open for the summer, the future of the pool looks far from secure.

At the heart of the problem are guidelines from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) about water clarity in swimming pools. The local MP says they are "ludicrously inappropriate", and shouldn't be applied to the sea pool. Local people say the rules could cause more accidents than they prevent, and have launched a vigorous campaign to save it. The outcome of this battle to save one of the largest and most popular swimming pools in the country may have grave implications for the future of 100 or so outdoor public swimming pools, which include some 30 sea pools, in the UK.

This pool has provided safe bathing for hundreds of thousands of people. Lifeguards patrolling the few miles of coast around Bude estimate they save some 30 lives here every year, and the 90m pool provides a salt-water alternative for children, weak swimmers and anyone else who doesn't want to face the risks of the sea. It is, essentially, a glorified rock pool - an acre or so of seawater held back by a man-made wall, which is refilled every high-tide when the sea washes over it. When the pool was first opened, one hot July day in 1930, the local paper stated that locals "could now proclaim worldwide that there was absolutely safe bathing at Bude," and added: "In all probability precious lives [will] be saved: they [will] not have the tragic happenings in the future that they have had in the past through people bathing at low water." The only fatality at the pool happened 28 years ago; a man was walking along the wall at high tide when a wave knocked him unconscious and into the pool. He drowned.

Mini Fry is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's head lifeguard for North Cornwall. He has swum in the pool for 38 years. "I learnt to swim here," he says. "I've worked here for 22 years and have never pulled anyone out. We've had one or two people slip over, and a few problems with surfers, canoeists and swimmers when the tide is high and they wash into the pool. But then it's really part of the ocean. It's of massive value to the community. Nearly everyone in the area has learnt to swim here. It's an extremely safe environment."

So he was surprised to discover that North Cornwall District Council (NCDC), which runs the pool, was closing it on health and safety grounds. In early April a terse notice was published on the council's website: "NCDC is closing Bude Sea Pool until further notice following advice from the Health and Safety Executive," it said. "The council has had an initial survey completed on the Bude Sea Pool and has received a letter from the Health and Safety Executive that recommends the pool is closed until improvements can be made." Soon after, stark warning signs were put up: "Pool Closed Until Further Notice", they said; "Keep Out".

Earlier in the year, the council had commissioned a health and safety report on the pool, which was delivered to it in February. The report - which remains confidential - concluded that the pool fell foul of regulation HSG 179, which deals with water clarity. "The consultant said there had been a number of recent deaths in swimming pools and coroners had drawn attention to 'silent drowning syndrome'," says Mark Hall, the director of technical services for NCDC. "He said there was no way we'd see someone going down in the sea pool and we needed to address that. That was the first time someone brought it to our attention. We thought we were exempt."

Hall referred the report to the Health and Safety Executive for a second opinion. "They identified what we had identified," says Hall; the council would have to find some way of making the water clear, or the pool would be in breach of the rules, leaving NCDC liable if anyone drowned. By now it was almost Easter, when the council officially opens the pool (though locals swim in it all year round), but it was too late to do any remedial work, so notices went up to keep people out.

The pool closure bewildered local people. Pam Belverstone, whose family has been coming on holiday to Bude since 1980 and liked it so much that they moved here permanently four years ago, organised a petition. Some 6,500 people registered their opposition to the closure - "about half the population here", she says. "I didn't realise how passionate people are about it until I did the petition."

They were even more confused when they found out that the regulations are designed for indoor swimming pools. "The guidance was written primarily for indoor swimming pools," confirms a spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive, "but they could apply to this site." But with the sea washing over into the pool twice daily it will be impossible to ensure the water is always clear - sand and seaweed are constantly washed in and out, and the sand on the bottom of the pool is stirred up by the swimmers.

NCDC's Mark Hall found himself in a tricky position. "The sea pool was built to provide a safe haven for people to be able to swim out of the sea because there had been some drownings. But it's a man-made structure, so we have a duty here. We have to make it as safe as we can practicably make it." He says he has "taken a lot of flak" over the closure - "passions are running high and people want to blame someone. But if a youngster drowns in the sea pool, it'll be little consolation to the parents that we said the rules didn't apply here."

The local MP, Paul Tyler, says the guidelines are "ludicrously inappropriate". He adds: "What the HSE has effectively done is produce regulations for NCDC which throw the blame on them if anything goes wrong. The pool has a very good safety record and the whole idea that it is comparable to an indoor pool is nonsense." But the HSE refutes his criticism: "They are not rules, they are guidance. The only rules we have are the Health and Safety at Work Act. As long as the risk is managed, [the council] will have complied with the Act."

Keith Marshall is something of an expert on health and safety. He has run Adventure International, an outdoor pursuits centre whose children swim in the pool every morning, for 25 years, and he is also a Bude town councillor. He gave expert evidence to parliamentary hearings on the Lyme Bay disaster, when four sixth-formers died on a canoeing trip in 1993. He says 150,000 children from his centre have taken morning swims at the pool without major incident.

"There are no criteria to deal with sea pools, so they've applied indoor swimming pool regulations to it. It's ludicrous," he says. "It's like everything else with health and safety these days - the stuff you've got to do is ridiculous. Children won't learn anything about safety unless you put them in apparent danger. You can't tell me it's more dangerous to be in the pool than in the sea."

While he praises the way Mark Hall has dealt with the problem (as do many other locals), he believes that there are as many legal risks in closing the pool as keeping it open. "If a family comes down to Bude because of the sea pool but have to swim in the sea and something then happens, who are they going to sue?" he asks. "NCDC."

Mini Fry agrees. "There's 100 per cent support for the pool," he says. "On average, there are 40 rescues on Summerleaze Beach a year, and 70 per cent of them would find themselves in serious trouble if we didn't get involved. I've counted 120 inflatable toys in there on a busy lunchtime in August, and up to 300 people are in it at a time on a hot day." He adds: "If I had a problem with the pool, it would have been closed down 20 years ago."

In the face of such a concerted public reaction, NCDC quickly arranged for temporary improvements to be made - the pool was drained and cleaned, safety rails were erected, extra lifeguards were drafted in and new safety notices put up - so that it could be opened for the Whit bank holiday. It was scheduled to be closed again from 7 June to 2 July for further improvements, and then to be opened until 26 September. Meanwhile, a task group of councillors and local people were due to meet to decide its future. "In previous years it hardly cost us anything at all," says Mark Hall. "It's going to cost us £120,000 for the summer, and there'll probably be an ongoing cost of £80,000 a year. Everyone wants it to survive into the future, but it needs to be sustainable. It's going to be expensive to run." He says that the council is committed to keeping it open, but there are serious questions over how it will be funded.

A few hundred metres from the Sea Pool is Tommy's Pit - another seawater bathing pool. Although it is much smaller than the sea pool, its water is just as murky, and fronds of slippery seaweed cover the rocks at the shallow end. Although it's close by, it's not run by the council and so it's not subject to the health and safety rules. If the sea pool closes permanently, no doubt Tommy's Pit will be packed with children on hot summer days, but many of those who used to use the pool will almost certainly venture into the sea. "And more people in the ocean means more rescues," says Mini Fry. "No question."