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POOLING RESOURCES

10-06-2009

Stirrer blogger Steve Beauchampe reveals that Birmingham’s new £58m Aquatics and Leisure Centre will be run privately, and not by the City Council. The building will be financed by the sale of existing Council-owned leisure facilities.

Following last week’s public consultation exercise, further details of the new £58m Birmingham Aquatics and Leisure Centre (BALC) opposite the NIA have emerged.

The centre, to incorporate the city’s first Olympic standard 50metre swimming pool, will be operated by a private ‘not for profit’ trust, thus breaking a near 160-year tradition of municipal-run swimming pools in Birmingham, dating back to the opening of Kent Street Baths in 1851.

It is anticipated that this new management structure will eventually be rolled out across the city’s other leisure facilities, including the new 25m pool and leisure complex planned as a replacement for Harborne Pool and Fitness Centre on Lordswood Road.

Funding for BALC is yet to be finalised, but the cost will be met in part by the sale of existing council-owned land, including the Ladywood Arts and Leisure Centre fronting Ladywood Middleway, whose facilities and functions will transfer to the new development, and the adjoining site of the former Monument Road Baths, which closed in 1994.

It is hoped to secure further finance for BALC from Sport England and Advantage West Midlands, the Regional Development Agency. Additional costs of around £25m are expected to come from the Council’s own reserves.

A Council official at the BALC consultation dismissed suggestions that Newtown Pool and Fitness Centre (recently shut due to structural issues) will also be closed, though one well-placed Council source has indicated otherwise.

Both the contracting out of what were traditionally publicly-run services and sale of Council-owned land are in line with the Business Transformation Scheme, concept of the Capita group, the private consultants controversially hired by BCC to oversee radical change to the way council services are delivered.

The Birmingham Aquatics and Leisure Centre will be located on Council owned land adjacent to Nelson Primary School on St. Vincent Street, opposite the NIA.

The centrepiece of the design - by S & P Architects, the practice responsible for the Aquatic Centre for the 2012 London Olympics - will be a 50m x 25m ten-lane Olympic standard swimming pool which the council hopes will be used for training purposes by an Olympic swimming squad prior to the 2012 Games.

The pool can be reconfigured by the use of high-tech boons and movable flooring to form up to three smaller 25m pools, of four, six and ten lanes with a depth of up to 2m throughout the tank and heated to a temperature of 27ºC. There will be a single-sided 700-seat spectator gallery, though temporary seating could expand this figure by around 100.

A 5m deep Commonwealth Games-standard diving pit featuring platforms at 10m, 7.5m. 5m, 3m and 1m will be incorporated in the tank, with the ability to cover a large section of the 50m pool and affix up to 2,000 temporary seats when diving competitions are staged. Allied to this will be a Drive Dive Training Facility (think trampolines and gymnastics equipment).

There will be an adjacent 25mx8m Training Pool, to be used as a warm-up area during swimming competitions. At other times this can be screened off from both the rest of the building and the outside world to facilitate single gender swimming sessions, along with school and club groups. Expected to operate at 28ºC, it will have a movable floor and a maximum depth of 2m.

A Leisure Pool (or Leisure Water, as the plans refer to it), featuring a variety of slides and flumes, wave machines and a beach, completes the aquatic line up. Similar to amenities found at Alton Towers and other adventure parks, it will be up to 1.8m deep and heated to 32ºC. A café will be located alongside the pool, which will be positioned at the front of the facility, near the junction of Summer Hill Street and St. Vincent Street.

Changing facilities will meet Sport England approved standards, with individual, family and group cubicles as well as disabled changing cubicles.

An eight-court sports hall (defined in terms of badminton court size), dojo (martial arts training facility), dance studio and two-storey climbing wall will also be included, along with a spa, sauna and steam room, multi-function room, soft play area, crèche and a mammoth 130-station fitness gym and junior gym room (similar to the children’s Ice Gyms currently found at some Council leisure centres). Four outdoor five-a-side football pitches will be provided, replacing the small-sided sports pitches currently located on the BALC site.

The 50m pool is expected to cater for national and international swimming competitions, club and school galas, as well as water polo (a sport with strong historical connections to Birmingham but currently lacking in competition-standard facilities in the city).

However, it will not be capable of staging World or European swimming championships or swimming events of the magnitude of the Commonwealth Games, where anything up to 10,00 seats would be required. For that, it is accepted that temporary facilities would need installing at the NIA or NEC.

The schedule for a typical day in the 50m pool might see elite swimmers using it between 5-7am, lane swimming between 7-9pm, followed by school and swim for free sessions (interspersed with more lane swimming) during the day, and club or group hire in the evenings, with closure around 9-10pm.

Officials stated that altering the pool’s configuration would be a straightforward and rapid operation. Hire charges for use of the entire 50m pool are expected to be around £100 per hour, much less if a smaller configuration is required.

Officials at the public consultation insisted that they believed that BALC can break even, or even make a profit, citing the leisure water, fitness gym, sports hall and outdoor football pitches as principle income generators subsidising the operating costs of the 50m and 25m swimming pools and diving facilities.

This implies that a key target market will be the city living demographic, particularly given BALC’s location in the shadow of a significant number of newly constructed apartments. Assurances were given that all current BCC user concessions, including Swim for Free and Passport to Leisure Card holders, will be able to use the amenities on the same basis as with existing council facilities.

Not surprisingly, car parking and traffic issues have been at the forefront of local residents’ concerns. BALC customers arriving by car will be encouraged to use the 700-space NIA car park, while further multi-storey parking is available at nearby Brindley Place.

It is planned to clear an empty block of council-owned retirement flats on St. Vincent Street for use as a coach park. BALC will also provide 30 cycle racks.

Although there was some confusion over the dates of the exhibition, compared to the recent public consultation exercise relating to the new Library of Birmingham where maps, plans and diagrams were absent, questions repeatedly ruled out of order and detailed information non-existent, this was in marked - and welcome - contrast.

Knowledgeable and forthcoming senior Council officers were in attendance and the project has clearly been thought through in great detail.

However, significant funding issues remain unresolved and the implications of a privatised management structure raise many questions. While the future of several of Birmingham’s public pools, such as Sparkhill, Newtown and Moseley Road, remains uncertain, the long-term impact of such an ambitious scheme as BALC raises legitimate questions that city leisure chiefs will need to answer before it’s £58m cost should be approved.

The BALC plans will shortly be on display in the foyer of the House of Sport, the former Registry Office building on Broad Street. It is anticipated that an application for outline planning permission will be submitted on July 6th.

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