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SINK OR SWIM?

11-06-2009

With further details of the proposed £58m Birmingham Aquatic and Leisure Centre emerging, Steve Beauchampé assesses the scheme’s desirability and viability.

There is much to commend in the plans for the £58m Birmingham Aquatics and Leisure Centre (BALC), unveiled last week. For a city of Birmingham’s size and ambition to have no 50m Olympic-standard swimming pool is a major black mark.

S&P, the architects enlisted to design the new complex, are leaders in the field, with scores of projects to their name, including the London Aquatic Centre for the 2012 Olympics.

Yet while the drawings produced for BALC are neither as bold nor dramatic, and might benefit from some aesthetic flourishes, the design - somewhat reminiscent of Crawley’s 50m K2 pool and the Cardiff International Pool (S&P, 2007) - should meet with general approval.

Indeed, it is a world away from both the bland exterior of the nearby NIA and the dreary corrugated boxes that house the leisure centres and associated swimming pools Birmingham erected during the1970s and 1980s.

So wanting has been the city’s investment in swimming that it has built no new pools since Kingstanding opened in 1988. Well, we wait over 20 years and then two come along at once, with plans for a new pool in Harborne well advanced (again by S&P, designs for which were unveiled in May).

The location for BALC, essentially the meeting point of old and new Ladywood (with much post-war social hosing to the west and north, contemporary apartments to the south and towards Hockley in the east) is crucial to the scheme’s financial viability.

Council officials at last week’s consultation stressed the Importance of attracting office workers and the “city living” demographic to use not only the swimming pools but, more importantly, the complex’s ‘add-ons’ i.e. the 130 station fitness gym, sports hall, and outdoor five-a-side pitches.

Essential too will be the ability to attract family groups to the Leisure Pool with its myriad slides and flumes. Given all that (plus the proximity of the NIA’s 700-space car park), the call by Labour Group Leader and Ladywood Councillor Sir Albert’s Bore to locate BALC on Ladywood Middleway is a non-starter.

There are however two major concerns; a) How will the scheme be financed? b) The decision to pass management of BALC to a ‘not for profit’ trust, understood to be a forerunner of how all of the city’s leisure facilities will operate in the future.

At best, BCC remains £25m short of the £58m it needs for BALC, with much of the money already identified expected to be drawn from it’s own capital reserves.

It is hoped that grants from Sport England and Advantage West Midlands, the much-criticised Regional Development Agency, will make significant inroads into the outstanding bill; indeed, it would be extremely disappointing if a scheme such as BALC were not able to attract funding from these sources.

BCC will also sell more of its property and land portfolio to bridge the deficit. Top of the list is the site of 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.

How much the Council hope to (and eventually do) raise from these sales is uncertain (projections for land sales at Paradise Circus relating to the Library of Birmingham scheme have proved over-optimistic), generating fears that service cuts will be imposed to meet the shortfall.

Given that an additional £12m is required for the promised re-building of Harborne Pool and Fitness Centre and that an estimated £16m will eventually be needed for Stechford Cascades (where a co-location scheme on an unnamed site, possibly in Yardley, is apparently now under consideration) residents and community leaders in north Birmingham might be advised to press for assurances about the future of Newtown Pool and Fitness Centre, currently closed following structural problems.

Indeed, it is a mark of the Council’s desperation to open a 50m pool ahead of the 2012 Olympics that while money to repair Sparkhill Baths (closed in June 2008 and with no date given for it’s re-opening) and the deteriorating Grade II* Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath, a building of national importance, is currently not forthcoming, the go-ahead is being sought for a project as costly as BALC.

The issue of who manages BALC is also contentious. Council officials insist that the facility will be profitable but that the local authority does not have the skills to operate it (though Birmingham Corporation has operated swimming pools and other leisure buildings for almost 160 years).

Instead a ‘not for profit’ trust will run the building (which will remain in BCC ownership) with the Council determining such matters as the centre’s charge tariffs and opening hours and the operators expected to retain BALC’s day-to-day income.

One senior official informed us that the trust would bear all of the risk should the facility lose money, while any profits would be re-invested in the complex, though it is hard to see, should the centre run at a loss, how anything other than public money of some description would be used to keep the building operational.

In reality many details of the relationship are either imprecise or not yet formulated.

But in a world where local authorities are enthusiastically embracing the notion that their rôle is no longer to provide directly accountable public services, but merely to take a strategic overview and commission the provision of services to third parties, the organisations and consultancies created to deliver these often incur high management fees and salaries.

At the same time the pay and conditions of their staff, often transferred en masse from the local authority, are usually tougher and less protected than beforehand.

In other words, a ‘not for profit’ trust shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean a body of altruistic public spirited, community-minded worthies, more a way for businessmen (and it will be men!) to cream off a bit more from the public purse and probably pay less tax at the same time.

When the 50m Olympic-standard pool proposal was discussed by Council Cabinet in December 2008, Cllr. Ray Hassell, then Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture, assured his colleagues, the public and the media, that no community pools would close as a result of building and operating the new complex. It is a pledge needs re-affirming.

BALC is an imaginative and exciting scheme, and bringing it to fruition would be a most worthwhile achievement. However, until fundamental questions relating to its financing, management and operating costs are answered satisfactorily, and monies secured for the repair of the city’s community pools, then Birmingham City Council must be prepared to wait a little longer before committing to it.

The author was a researcher and photographer on Great Lengths (Malavan Media, 2009), English Heritage’s book documenting the historic swimming pools of Britain.

See also “Pooling Resources

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