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SPLASHING OUT

13-07-2009

After years of neglect, Birmingham City Council appears to be seriously addressing the state of its community swimming pools, starting at today’s Cabinet meeting. But are they ready to splash out wonders Steve Beauchampé.

Birmingham City Council’s Cabinet meeting will today be asked to approve an initial series of measures designed to address the worsening condition of the city’s network of community swimming pools.

Problems with the stock of pools have increased in recent years, caused in part by a combination of ageing facilities and a long-term lack of investment in repair, maintenance and new build,

Two pools - at Newtown and Sparkhill - are currently closed completely following the discovery of asbestos and (in the case of Sparkhill) acute structural corrosion, whilst the Gala Pool at the Grade II* Listed Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath has been shut since 2003, with much of the remainder of the building in such a parlous state of repair that it features on both English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register and the Victorian Society’s Top Ten List of Endangered Buildings.

Structural defects also mean that Harborne Baths are shortly due for demolition and rebuild, whilst there are long-term questions about the condition of Tiverton Road, Selly Oak (the city’s oldest public pool, dating from 1906) and Stechford Pool (1962).

Add to this the fact that areas such as Ladywood, Saltley and Nechells have all seen their pools closed and not replaced (the city has built no new pools since Kingstanding Leisure Centre opened in 1988) and it is clear that the hope expressed by Cllr. Martin Mullaney, recently appointed Cabinet Member for Leisure Sport and Culture, to have a swimming pool within twenty minutes walk of every Birmingham citizen’s home, is highly ambitious.

Today’s Cabinet meeting is expected to back measures to address the most pressing problems, as well as approving further planning in relation to the Birmingham Aquatic and Leisure Centre (which will incorporate an Olympic-standard 50m swimming pool and diving facility) near the NIA in Ladywood.

Specifically, Cabinet will be asked to authorise the following actions:

  • Moseley Road - investigate the cost of refurbishing and re-opening the Gala Pool and the logistics involved (i.e. timescale, impact on remainder of the building during works).
  • Sparkhill - investigate design options prior to deciding between refurbishment or rebuild.
  • Harborne - authorise Officers to prepare a formal planning application, for submission in September.
  • Birmingham Aquatics and Leisure Centre - authorise Officers to prepare a formal planning application, for submission in September.
  • Stechford - investigate options for refurbishment or rebuild (both on or away from current site) and to establish the principle of Stechford as a [medium term] priority project.

Newtown Pool is not on today’s agenda. A report is currently being prepared into the structural issues, cost and feasibility of repairing and re-opening the existing facility, which dates from 1968. This should be completed in time for September’s Cabinet meeting.

The programme represents a major step forward for those campaigning to save Moseley Road Baths in particular.

Prior to today’s Cabinet meeting the Friends of Moseley Road Baths will hand a 3,000-signature petition to Councillor Mullaney on the steps of the Council House.

The petition, collected over the past two years, calls for the re-opening of Moseley Road’s Gala Pool, retention of the building as a publicly owned dual pool facility and restoration of its rare and unique architectural features.

Prior to this, campaigners will unveil banners calling for increased investment in community swimming pools outside both Sparkhill and Moseley Road Baths. Suggestions, which have persisted for several years, that the two pools (both of which lie within the Hall Green Constituency) could be closed and replaced with a single, new build facility in the locale are now seen as being politically unacceptable.

Crucially, funding streams for all of the projects on today’s agenda have still to be approved though land sales, existing council leisure budgets, Sports Council and development agency grants, along with the practice of prudential borrowing, are expected to produce the bulk of the money.

Implementing Mullaney’s ‘pool within a twenty minute walk’ plan will also be challenging and is likely to be achieved by locating new build pools on school sites, where joint use (schools during the day, general public at evenings and weekends) would be standard.

Cabinet is also expected to instruct senior officers to prepare a business plan covering the city’s entire stock of pools. This is seen as a precursor to placing the running of Birmingham’s swimming pools into the hands of a trust (with the Council retaining ownership of the buildings).

Several trust ‘models’ are believed to be under examination, with those operating in Glasgow and Sandwell representing the most likely direction for the city to take.

Mullaney believes that trust status, involving the transfer of existing staff and management to the new organisation, would allow greater operational autonomy while also benefiting from Government tax incentives denied under the current set up. However such a move would not be universally popular especially with the unions, concerned at the impact upon staff contracts and conditions of service.

*A protest against the threatened closure of Coseley Swimming Pool is to take place outside Dudley Council House, Priory Road, Dudley at 5pm on Monday evening. This follows a public meeting last week attended by over 100 concerned residents.

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