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WAVING NOT DROWNING

08-08-2008

Moseley Road Baths

You’d expect a local authority with something as unique and valuable as Moseley Road Baths to shout it from the rooftops, especially with a popular neighbouring pool out of commission all summer. Yet as Steve Beauchampe reports, Birmingham City Council officials seemingly want this Grade II* facility to remain a secret.

The school holidays are in full swing, the weather’s generally been the sort you want to get out and do things in, an ideal time you’d have thought for a local authority to be promoting it’s leisure facilities. Or then again, perhaps not, at least as far as officials in Birmingham’s Hall Green constituency are concerned.

Despite this being a heavily populated area, and one somewhat lacking in sports facilities, there seems to be a determined absence of will to encourage use of Moseley Road Swimming Baths in Balsall Heath.

Which is particularly odd considering that in neighbouring Sparkhill (also in the Hall Green constituency), the local swimming pool is closed, until at least October, following the discovery last month of asbestos in the roof. For many Sparkhill regulars, Moseley Road Baths is their nearest and most convenient alternative.

To supporters of Moseley Road Baths, widely recognised as one of Britain’s finest Edwardian swimming pools, the situation comes as no surprise.

For more than a year the Friends of Moseley Road Baths group have been trying to get Birmingham City Council to put a sign or banner outside the building stating a) that it’s a public swimming pool and b) that it’s open. Yet to no avail and Moseley Road remains the only public pool in the city lacking such basic information!

Even a modest banner commemorating the building’s centenary (which had been used in 1996 to mark 100 years of the adjacent library), erected by officials only after much cajoling last October, was left twisted by the wind, its wording indecipherable, for months

Travel past even in the middle of the day and you could be forgiven for thinking that the building was closed. Only one narrow door is ever opened to the street and that partially obscured by a bus stop, while broken windows and graffiti present a forlorn and unwelcoming visage.

With most of the operational parts of the building towards the rear, after dusk few lights are visible from the street, adding to the feeling that, like the former School of Art opposite, this is yet another abandoned building on the Balsall Heath stretch of Moseley Road.

Copies of the timetable, which might best be described as rudimentary, had to be taken by the Friends group to Sparkhill as a way of encouraging disappointed swimmers to try their neighbouring pool.

Given that levels of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the Balsall Heath district are consistently above the Birmingham average, and that council leaders are always keen to stress their commitment to sport and young people, you may have expected them to grab any opportunity to get people swimming at the baths.

Add the lure of swimming in one of the country’s most historic pools (added points here for promoting Birmingham’s rich heritage) and it might seem that the council have everything to gain by filling Moseley’s one remaining operational pool all day, every day (except of course for weekends, when it closes early and Bank Holiday Mondays, when it doesn’t open at all).

Even the opportunities provided by the recent Wet Sounds art installation (an Arts Council funded project to promote awareness of historic pools) and this week’s 1,000 Year Swim event by Victorian Society Director Ian Dungavel have been spurned (see link here).

Wet Sounds organisers criticised BCC’s lack of interest, while the Council’s Forward magazine refused to publicise Dungavel’s visit, partly because the issue of Moseley Road Baths is too much of a ‘hot potato’.

And herein lies the real issue. There are many in both the Hall Green Constituency and the Council House who would just like to get shot of the building. Transfer it from Council ownership and let the private sector run it, maximising income with little public accountability.

To them, swimming pools - and Moseley Road in particular - are loss-making drains on their budgets. For such people the notion of swimming being of public benefit is at best a secondary consideration while the idea that an imaginative management approach might at least keep costs in check must seem too much like hard work.

Meanwhile, the more people that swim at Moseley Road the harder they fear it will be to permanently shut part of it, or convert it into a job centre as has been done with the former Nechells Baths and which is planned for the old Bournville Lane Baths in Stirchley.

Easier death by neglect than striving to provide public services worth bragging about.

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