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Swimming against the current

29 September 2022
  • This blog is the latest in a series looking at potential impacts of the cost of living crisis on public services and communities in Wales.  

    I was lucky that I learnt to swim at a very young age in my local public swimming pool and a trip to the ‘baths’ was the highlight of my week. This instilled me with a lifelong love of water and the ability to stay safe in it and the understanding to respect it.

    With the current energy and cost-of-living crises putting pressure on this discretionary public service will future generations have the same opportunity as I did? Will the response to this issue in the short term have long term negative effects? How does this support the Well-being of Future Generations goals, particularly ‘a healthier Wales’ and the prevention ambition? 

    There have been a lot of articles in the media of late regarding the impact of the energy cost crisis on our public swimming pools – but is there a real risk to these vital facilities and what will the impact be?  

    A recent survey by the not-for-profit body ukactive found that nine-in-ten public pool operators plan to reduce their services in the next six months due to rising energy costs. They have issued a stark message: “Given the low base from which the UK entered the COVID-19 pandemic (one in three children unable to swim), we can ill-afford to allow the continued closure and permanent loss of access to swimming pools. The countries that mandate learning to swim and water safety to a high level (eg Sweden) have comparatively low drowning rates. 

    Sadly, as noted in a recent BBC article: “On average, about 45 people die in water-related incidents each year in Wales, with an average of 600 people across the UK….the Wales Drowning Prevention Strategy 2020-2026 has the goal of halving the number of accidental drowning deaths by 2026.” There is a lot of work being done to improve these statistics.  

    Swim Wales, in consultation with partners, has developed a School Swimming Plan for Wales to provide a teaching framework for teachers and schools – Nofio Ysgol. The partners involved in this commitment of ‘Every Child a Swimmer’ are Welsh Government, all 22 local authorities, Sport Wales and Water Safety Wales.  

    As well as learning how to swim, pupils also learn about water safety – with some recent water tragedies highlighting the need for this. With shrinking disposable incomes limiting leisure spending, combined with warmer weather due to climate change,  are people being tempted into potentially dangerous open waters?  

    Last year, saw the development of a new partnership between Swim Wales, Welsh Triathlon and Welsh Water in response to an increase in people participating in open water swimming. The S.A.F.E. Cymru accreditation has been developed by the partnership to support this shift to more open water swimming. However, basic swimming skills are learnt by the vast majority of people in the safety of a swimming pool and many do this through school swimming lessons. 

    Since October 2019, funding has been devolved to whoever is delivering leisure services, replacing previous schemes. With a reduction in budget (£3.m from April 2020, plus a £1m capital investment programme for updating pools), this money was to be more focused on people from areas of deprivation rather than all areas. The decision on how and if to provide fee swimming sessions was therefore devolved to local authorities and whoever is delivering leisure services (ie leisure trusts).  

    So, with the need for swimming lessons being clearly articulated, yet not mandated, how are our local authorities providing facilities to support this other than committing to the Nofio Ysgol framework? And do they have to?  

    The simple answer is no – leisure is a discretionary service, with swimming pools being a huge drain on finances. But, as acknowledged in our recent POPS report: “Although councils have greater choice over these services, some are extensions of statutory services, or highly valued and important in delivering councils’ vision.”  

    With the well documented increase in energy costs the country is now facing, how can councils meet the demand without breaking the budget?

    As yet we don’t know and the current pressures in the public leisure sector are building up to a perfect storm of challenges: the ongoing impact of Covid (a gap in swimming skills due to lockdown and the unknown impact of long covid), hardship fund ceasing, behaviour change in exercise caused by closure of facilities, and the simple fact that people will not be able to afford any increased fees.  

    Just over half of councils in Wales have outsourced their leisure services (many since we conducted our 2015 review ‘Delivering with Less – Leisure Services’), with the aim of reducing costs. This discretionary service remains a political ‘hot potato’ and any cuts, or perceived cuts, provoke a strong backlash from the public which shows how highly they are valued by communities in Wales.  

    The outsourcing of these services may alleviate some financial pressures but not all. Swimming pools are a particular drain on energy costs, however, they remain essential for our communities. As well as swimming lessons, leisure and exercise, they are vital for social prescribing initiatives. There are also links with the 21st Century schools programme (where pools are housed on education sites). So public services cannot just close the doors and drain the pools until brighter financial days. There are technical advancements that could help but these would need considerable investment so simpler solutions may need to be employed: lower pool temperatures, shorter opening hours, fewer staff, etc. 

    Despite this dire outlook, there are springs of hope – with some targeted funding, improved technologies, a drive to improve the swimming skills of our younger generations and an increased use of social prescribing hiding behind the headlines. The challenge will be for our public services to ride the wave caused by the costs of living crisis and help deliver these vital services to the benefit of all, whilst contributing to the national well-being goals and avoiding a post-code lottery. 

    What do you think? How can public services protect community assets such as swimming pools while managing the huge impact of rising energy costs? Leave your comments below.   

    • In October, our Good Practice Exchange team will be delivering events designed to bring people together from across public services to share ideas, learning and knowledge on how organisations can respond to the challenges caused by poverty. To register your interest, please complete our online booking form: Cardiff/Conwy.

    About the Author

    Lisa Ridley, research and development team