SWIMMERS HOPES SUNK BY OLYMPIC POOL
Plans for a new Olympic-sized pool in Birmingham are expected to be rubber-stamped by the city’s Cabinet today – but as Steve Beauchampe argues, the cost will be paid by leisure swimmers at other public baths.
According to Friday's Birmingham Mail, a 'senior local authority official' admitted some of the city's older swimming venues may have to close to help bridge a multi-million pound funding gap.
With no new facilities built for over 20 years, during which time several pools have closed permanently, the city falls far short of Sport England's targets for levels of water space provision (reaching a paltry 9.3sq.m of swimming pool space per 1,000 head of population compared to a national average of 13.1sq.m).
The actual deficiency has been even worse for some time, with Wyndley in Sutton closed for 30 months (it finally re-opens this week) and Sparkhill shut until at least February (a hiatus of no more three months was promised when it closed in June).
Yet precedents for such a course of events are not hard to find. When Manchester's Aquatics Centre opened in time for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, two of the city's other pools, at Harpurhey and Gorton, soon closed.
Meanwhile, both Harborne and Stechford are in dire need of investment, structural problems at Harborne making a major re-build inevitable, while Stechford, like so many other pools of its vintage, already looks tired and old.
Currently home to the City of Birmingham Swimming Club, it is the city's largest swimming complex, comprising four pools, including a deep water pool for the staging of diving events, and with a capacious spectator gallery to allow for the hosting of galas.
Most of this activity can be expected to transfer to the new 50-metre pool complex, with Stechford becoming more akin to a community pool, albeit with modern facilities.
Over Christmas and New Year many of the city's pools will close, or experience significantly reduced opening hours, for up to 10 days, precisely the period when users, especially children, are on holiday.
A recent initiative by the Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust offering all residents of Ladywood, Perry Barr and Hall Green constituencies free swimming has met with a muted response, with little or no publicity in at least one of the areas involved.
Indeed, one pool manager is reported to have been loath to publicise the offer for fear of overwhelming demand forcing him to turn away regulars.
With Government initiatives to get more people swimming set for implementation before 2012, an increasing population, and a growing recognition amongst health professionals that swimming can play a key role in combating such problems as heart disease, strokes and general levels of obesity, demand for water space in Birmingham can only rise, making the need for additional or refurbished pools even more acute.
The thought that the city may actually shut down more pools hardly bears contemplating.
Cabinet members (not least the Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee) should ask very searching questions (and expect detailed answers) of Council Leader Mike Whitby and Leisure Service Chief Ray Hassell before approving such plans.
A failure to do so may be beneficial to a few overseas Olympic swimmers... but a lot less so for Birmingham citizens.
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