UK's swimming pool drought revealed - as Doncaster fares better than most of country

Some parts of England have 10 times less public swimming space than others, exclusive analysis shows.

By Darren Burke and Claire Wilde
Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 3:53 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th August 2021, 3:55 pm

The pool ‘deserts’ have been laid bare after Tokyo Olympics star Duncan Scott warned of the “quite sad” closure of pools across the UK.

Some parts of the country have a lot less public pool space – but Doncaster fares above average, with a large number of pools comapred to the size of the town’s population.

Three regions - the North West, West Midlands and East Midlands - only have two public diving pools each, according to the analysis of Sport England data.

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Doncaster fares better than most of the UK for swimming pool provision.

The study found eight pools in Doncaster – a figure of 5.1 pool sites per 100,000 people

Great Britain Diving Federation president Jim McNally said the Government’s policy of providing sport for all was “in tatters”.

He said: “This is a situation which is getting worse and worse and the grassroots sport is being allowed to wither on the vine.”

Swim England said it predicted the nation would lose 40% of its existing pools by the end of the decade, “potentially shutting millions out of the activities they love”.

The Government said its £100 million National Leisure Centre Recovery Fund had “secured the survival and reopening of more than 1,100 swimming pools all over the country”.

NationalWorld’s analysis looked at all pools which are open to the public for free or on a pay-and-swim basis, excluding commercially-owned sites or those only available to members.

There are 1,997 public pools across 1,187 sites in England, totalling 503,233 square metres of pool space, the data shows.

But when measured against the size of the population, some areas’ facilities are spread more thinly than others.

The analysis found:

One council area, Broadland in Norfolk, has no dedicated public pool;

There are three regions without an Olympic-size pool: the North West, East of England and East Midlands, although each has 50m pools which do not meet Olympic width standards;

Rushmoor in Hampshire enjoys the most swimming pool space, at 5,450 square metres per 100,000 people, but 50 council areas have just a tenth of this provision;

The most urban areas are the worst served in terms of public pool space per head.

Mr McNally warned that access to diving pools had become a “postcode lottery”, thanks to the loss of ageing facilities and a recent funding focus by sports bodies on a handful of ‘centres of excellence’ for elite athletes.

“To that end, the Government policy of providing sport for all is in tatters,” he said.

“I think there are 11 centres of excellence scattered across the country but they are not scattered demographically properly.

“For example, Birmingham is only now getting a major swimming pool and diving pool when up to now it has not had one, and the only reason it is getting one is for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

“It is the second largest city in the UK and it had no diving provision for many, many years.”

In London, more than 30,000 people have signed a petition to save the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre’s 50m and diving pools, which were forced to shut last year because of structural problems.

Mr McNally said if the site was closed for good, this would leave the capital with only one 10m diving facility, which he branded “an appalling state of affairs”.

Mr McNally, a Masters diving world champion, said he himself had to travel nearly an hour from his home in North Hertfordshire to Hemel Hempstead to train.

He said while committed divers were travelling “lengthy distances” to get pool time, others were dropping out of the sport entirely.

Mr McNally said he hoped a recent funding policy change by sport governing bodies would benefit the grassroots sport. But he said this was “going to take time to filter through”.

Earlier this month, Olympic gold medallist Duncan Scott warned of the “sad” loss of swimming pools across the UK.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, the Scottish swimmer said: “Where I grew up, in Clackmannanshire, we have not actually got a pool, they’ve all recently shut.”

The 24-year-old, who this summer became the first British athlete to win four medals at a single Games, said learning to swim was “so important for kids to, firstly, feel safe and confident within the water, but it is also quite an important social skill”.

He added: “I think it is quite sad, so hopefully over the coming months something is done about it.”

A spokesperson for Swim England said: “For everyone to be able to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of swimming, it is absolutely vital that there are appropriate facilities in the right locations.

“Swim England’s 2019 Value of Swimming report forecast that the number of pools in England is set to decline by 40% by the end of the decade, potentially shutting millions out of the activities they love.

“The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the issue and it’s clear that local authorities need both short and long-term funding for facilities.

“Next month, we will be publishing a Value of Facilities report containing new insight which will give a clearer picture of the issue and the steps that need to be taken.”

A spokesperson for Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “We’re prioritising the nation’s fitness and health as we build back better from the pandemic, and swimming is a fantastic sport for all ages to enjoy.

“The Government has provided an unprecedented £1 billion of public money to ensure the survival of the grassroots, professional sport and leisure sectors.

“This includes the £100 million National Leisure Centre Recovery Fund which secured the survival and reopening of more than 1,100 swimming pools all over the country.

“On top of this Sport England, the Government’s funding agency, has provided over £8.5 million to swimming and diving projects, and over £16 million to Swim England since 2017.

“We are putting the support in and are sure that Team GB’s incredible success at Tokyo 2020 will inspire many people to get swimming.”

The Broadland council area in Norfolk has no dedicated public pools, according to the data, although National World understands that there are facilities at local schools which are available for some community use.

A council spokesman said: “Although Broadland District Council does not have its own swimming pools there are a number of public pools that can be used by our residents.

“There are also some private pools that are available for bookings.”