It's a bit of a New Year's tradition, isn't it - getting active after a festive period often characterised by excess and indulgence. There's more than one way to get active, however, and it feels fitting to us, at the start of the year in which The Lido Guide will go into print, to do our bit for activists trying to save a much loved outdoor pool.
I was honoured to be asked to speak, by the campaign group Restore Kenilworth Lido, at a public meeting they hosted in Kenilworth yesterday. Warwickshire District Council has expressed its intent to close the outdoor pool at Abbey Fields, in the town, in order to replace it with an indoor 10m x 15m training pool sitting alongside the indoor 25m pool that already occupies part of the site. This would put an end to outdoor swimming at Abbey Fields after more than 100 years. While the outdoor pool currently occupying the site, a free-form pool constructed just a few decades ago, is not the original pool built there it nevertheless continues a tradition that has played a not insignificant role in the wider cultural importance of swimming in outdoor pools.
Roger Deakin, the author of Waterlog - the book that is, perhaps, the classic swimmer's tale that has paved the way for all others - swam in the lido at Abbey Fields as a boy. In the book he recalls his earliest swimming memory of his Uncle Laddie, a local swimming champion who had his own keys to the outdoor pool, taking him there before it opened to the public and teaching him to swim. The pleasure and privilege of having the pool to themselves was not lost on a young Roger. He rued the replacement of the original lido with the modern, free-form pool calling it 'a token travesty of its former glory.'
He was, sadly, right about that and it is, in part, the kidney-shape of the pool as it currently is that contributes to its potential undoing. While this pool offers a little holiday-style glitz it is simply not useful to swimmers. It's a fine pool for splashing about and jumping in for having, in short, larks. But it is not suited to giving swimming lessons, aquatic exercise classes, running galas or catering for swimmers who want to bash out the lengths as they train. In short, it does not offer any flexibility of income stream, and the current operator, Everyone Active, deems it to be uneconomic. They would prefer the indoor training pool that is proposed as they know there is a good profit margin in swimming lessons.
Restore Kenilworth Lido would like to see the free-form pool replaced by a 25m, 4-lane outdoor pool. Concrete proposals have been put before Warwickshire District Council. To be fair to them they did ask for that option to be explored for commercial viability, and received a report concluding it would not generate enough income to be economically viable. The council released that report immediately before Christmas 2018, and plan to vote on what to do with the Abbey Fields site on the 9th January 2019. They have not, therefore, given any realistic time for the campaign group to respond which is, in my view, a very poor approach to democracy.
I have read the commercial viability study, and I believe it to be fundamentally flawed. The authors clearly have little experience or knowledge of outdoor pools and what makes them successful. They operate on assumptions that outdoor pools are 'highly weather dependent' and seasonal. If an outdoor pool is run well, neither of those things need be so. Where operators struggle to maximise revenue from an outdoor pool it is often because they treat it as an indoor pool without a roof, and fail to exercise the imagination required to develop all the available income streams. The study, which you can read for yourself here, also fails to recognise the income streams that could be developed at an outdoor pool, as opposed to an indoor training pool, and appears to assume that exactly the same activities would happen in the two pools. This is a significant flaw. It may be that Everyone Active would not plan to maximise the other available income streams, but that rather begs the question 'are they the best operator for this site'?
The assessment also relies on a study made on behalf of Stratford Parks Pool, in Stroud (also managed by Everyone Active) and cites its finding that an outdoor pool cannot be financially viable without the benefit of an additional income stream such as parking or a restaurant. That study is also flawed. It chose to look at pools primarily in the same region as Stratford Park, rather than looking at pools of a comparable type. It also did not pay due regard to operating models. As an example that study made a comparison with Bristol Lido. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with the lido industry knows that the team behind Bristol Lido and Thames Lido are not, first and foremost, running a lido. They are running restaurant / spa businesses. The pools are not designed, or run, to be the primary income stream and they are primarily a members only model with what limited casual swimming there is on offer being so expensive as to be all but inaccessible to people on low incomes. Had the Stroud study chosen to look at the work done at Portishead Lido, a 30 minute drive away from Bristol Lido, they would have found a vibrant, successful and financially sustainable outdoor pool that is now open year round.
The public meeting in Kenilworth was very well attended, with people having to squeeze into all corners of the room. The purpose of the meeting was to ask the public to vote on a resolution to ask Warwickshire District Council to defer its decision in respect of Abbey Fields. That resolution was passed unanimously, and I very much hope that Warwickshire District Council listen to the public on this matter. Seeking to bury the issue by releasing the commercial assessment of options so close to Christmas, and then proposing to vote decisively on the matter so soon after Christmas, really is disgraceful.
Restore Kenilworth Lido deserve a chance to respond to the assessment, and it was clear from the comments / discussion coming from the floor that residents of Kenilworth remain fiercely attached to outdoor swimming at Abbey Fields. Their voices deserve to be heard.
Almost as an aside, when I went, with Gill Wright of Historic Pools of Britain, to look at the outdoor pool before the meeting I noticed it was empty. Leaving a pool empty puts the structure at significant risk from the upward pressure of the water table. I asked the helpful young man at the reception desk whether the pool was left empty every winter. He confirmed that this was the usual practice - although I note that Everyone Active only took over running the pool in 2017 so he may not know what the practice was before that. I remarked that they must be very confident of the water table and the absence of any risk from that to be happy to leave it empty. He confirmed that they were absolutely confident of that. It was, therefore, something of a surprise to me to go on to walk around the perimeter of the facility and see, right outside behind the pool, a significant body of water with run off diverted into a culvert that runs right alongside the pool. I also learned that the pool has, in the past, been flooded. Both of which suggest that Everyone Active's confidence in the absence of any pressure from ground water might be misplaced.
Although the cynics amongst you might wonder whether a cracked tank mightn't suit the aims of both Everyone Active and Warwickshire District Council very nicely.
I can understand Warwickshire District Council's desire to see Abbey Fields generate more income; local authority budgets have been gutted and they have difficult decisions to make. It is understandable that they would wish to stop paying a subsidy to Everyone Active to run the pools at Abbey Fields. However, I note that SLM Ltd, the company that trades as Everyone Active, reported post-tax profits of £8.1m in the tax year 2017/2018. As a result of those profits they paid out £5m in dividends. Which did rather leave me wondering why any local authority considers it ethically acceptable to offer them any subsidy at all. I would prefer that my taxes were used solely to provide services to society, rather than to provide dividends for shareholders.