Public Swimming Pools

Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Media and Sport – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 30 January 2006.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East 2:30, 30 January 2006

If she will make a statement on provision of public swimming pools.

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

There are more than 4,400 swimming facilities of variable quality across England that are open to the public: 72 per cent. are owned by the local authority or education sectors, and more than half are pay-and-play facilities. Since 2004, 131 pools have opened across the country. More local authority pools have opened than have closed. Since 1997, the Government and lottery distributing bodies between them have invested more than £3 billion in physical activity and sport, and in that time £249 million of lottery investment has gone to swimming, which is the largest amount that has gone to any single sport.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Is she aware, however, that two swimming pools in my constituency are due to be closed with no certainty of like-for-like replacement? In addition, recent reports in the press indicate that 10 per cent. of swimming pools in schools have already closed. Given the proximity of the 2012 Olympics and the importance of swimming as a life skill, what steps are the Government taking to prevent further pool closures?

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

On the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I understand that the Arthur Hill pool is scheduled for closure, but the local authority has given a clear commitment that a new facility will be built with the capital receipt, and that the Arthur Hill pool will remain open until the new facility is ready. If that is not the case, I am happy to pursue the matter with the hon. Gentleman. More generally, however, as my hon. Friend Mr. Khan raised in an earlier question, we need more modern facilities. The average age of swimming pools is about 25 years, and many are simply not of the standard that people are prepared to use regularly. That is why we are asking local authorities to review their stock and make decisions where appropriate about how they might reinvest in modern, new facilities, with coaches. Such opportunities, and the right-to-swim programme, are ways of increasing participation in swimming.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

Will the Secretary of State comment on the position in London, where a number of boroughs are either in the process of closing swimming pools or talking about closing them, and many are not replacing them? Does she accept that we will increasingly face that problem as swimming pools get older, and that perhaps local authorities should take an all-party approach to the issue? All local authorities, whatever their politics, are having to close swimming pools, and they should not have to do so, given that we will host the Olympic games in 2012.

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

On balance, more pools have opened than closed, but I take my hon. Friend's point about the poor quality of many local authority facilities, which are old and for which we estimate the national maintenance backlog as something like £500 million. We therefore need to take steps. We have commissioned the Audit Commission to provide us with an assessment of the state of local authority facilities. However, we must also work with local authorities. The performance assessment will provide leverage to hold them to account in relation to leisure and sporting facilities, and to make the case for planning for the long term, divesting, selling off or pulling down those facilities that are too old to be serviceable again and, critically, reinvesting the money in the kind of modern facilities that people will want to use.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

What progress have the Government made in removing the long-standing discrimination operated by official funding bodies such as Sport England against open-air pools, including those that are heated and operate all the year round, such as the extremely popular Hampton pool in my constituency?

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

That is a very good question. As someone who swims periodically in the open-air Hampstead ponds, I am happy to take up that important matter for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Neil Turner Neil Turner PPS (Rt Hon Ian McCartney, Minister without Portfolio), Minister Without Portfolio

Wigan council recently agreed to fund free access to all its pools for those under 16. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an extremely exciting and bold initiative, which will encourage young people to join swimming clubs for health, safety and athletics purposes? Will she join me in congratulating the Labour-led council on that bold initiative?

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend and his local authority. I hope that others will follow the excellent example that he and his Labour colleagues have set. Right-to-swim schemes are beginning to develop around the country: there is at least one in every region, and wherever they operate they are very successful in encouraging more young people to take up swimming regularly.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My constituency does have a new swimming pool, but—and it is a very big but—a great opportunity was missed. Although the total sum available was enough to fund the building of an eight-lane, competition-size pool, there were so many strings attached to the lottery funding element, involving the provision of additional community facilities, that the result was only a six-lane, 25 m pool with less water space than the old pool which it replaced.

We could have had the only Olympic-size swimming pool in Greater London. Will the Minister think carefully about the strings attached to lottery funding? There are occasions on which local decisions are best. Had all the money been devoted to that pool, we could have had an Olympic-size pool in Harold Hill in Upminster.

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Obviously the hon. Lady is right. It is important constantly to ensure that application to the lottery fund is as simple and straightforward as possible. As for her point about the size of the pool, we will shortly have 19 50 m swimming pools, at least one in every region. Consultation with the Amateur Swimming Association, the governing body, and Sport England leads to a decision on whether a 50 m, a 30 m or a 25 m pool should be built. I think that their judgment is much better than mine in this instance.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Labour, Plymouth, Devonport

We are losing a swimming pool in Plymouth because the landowner wants to redevelop the site. Almost in parallel, the city council is trying to establish a life centre which would meet the Government's emphasis on the health aims of sport and leisure, and which would include a swimming pool. As a former swimming coach and lifeguard, I well understand the value of swimming pools for health and leisure purposes, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that her Department is offering design advice to local authorities to ensure that pools meet not just leisure standards but competitive standards? I agree with Angela Watkinson that there ought to be an eight-lane pool.

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

She will do her best, Mr. Speaker.

I take my hon. Friend's point. Advice of that kind is available through Sport England.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Labour, North East Derbyshire

How will the Secretary of State ensure that the Olympics and Paralympics legacy is spread a little more widely, and not confined to the south of England and big cities? May I suggest that a good start would be the building of an Olympic-size swimming pool in one of the coalfield areas, in North-East Derbyshire or perhaps in Bolsover?

Photo of Tessa Jowell Tessa Jowell The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

My right hon. Friend points out that there is one in Sheffield, which may not be surprising.

My hon. Friend has made an important point. We want the benefits of the 2012 Olympics in London to be felt across the country, which is why we held the first Olympics business summit last week. It was attended by 250 businesses from all over the United Kingdom. The sporting legacy must also be shared, however, through the development of preparation camps and of facilities funded by Sport England and the lottery. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be an excellent advocate of that cause on behalf of her constituents.