Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to UK councils have reported as many as 65 swimming pool closures, either temporarily or permanently, in the last three years to March 2022. A lack of staff, spiralling energy bills and national chlorine shortages has provoked the “perfect storm” for centres, ukactive said.
ukactive, which promotes commercial fitness gyms and community leisure centres across the UK, said the industry had only just begun recovering from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Commenting on the closures, ukactive board member Greg Whyte said it’s an “absolute health and welfare disaster”. The organisation has warned of further permanent closures before the end of the year.
The most affected regions
As of March 2022, approximately one in six local authorities had lost at least one pool on a permanent or temporary basis, BBC News reported. While some leisure centres are closed for refurbishment with no fixed reopening date, others are closed permanently.
Scotland and the West Midlands are some of the regions most affected by the closure of publicly funded swimming pools. In the last three years to March 2022, these areas have lost access to eight pools. While Scotland saw the number of pools fall from 219 to 211, the availability of publicly-funded pools in the West Midlands have decreased from 105 to 97.
The SnowDome, in Tamworth, has closed its 25-metre, junior and toddler pools to the public since Sunday due to the national chlorine shortage, according to BirminghamLive.
“Leisure centres provide 66% of our cancer prehab and rehab services”
According to ukactive, as many as two million children have left primary school unable to swim in the past year. The body’s Chief Executive, Huw Edwards, highlighted the correlation between swimming pools and public health.
“Two million children learn to swim in our pools every year and leisure centres provide 66% of our cancer prehab and rehab services, which clearly shows that lives are at stake if they close,” he said.
“Our members have laid out the evidence to the government, which now has a duty to support the survival of our gyms, pools and leisure centres through a package of financial and legislative measures that ensures their survival and growth.”
Rising energy costs could impact future decisions
“Public leisure facilities are disproportionately relied on by those on lower incomes,” said Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board. He added:
“Councils are working incredibly hard to prevent centres from closing, and understand that many people are facing rising individual costs, so have no desire to increase prices if it can be avoided.”
Spiralling energy costs could impact future decisions including whether new facilities can open, he warned.
A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Sport and Media said: “The government has provided an unprecedented £1bn of public money to ensure the survival of the grassroots, professional sport and leisure sectors.
“This includes the £100m 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 £8.5m to swimming and diving projects, and over £16m to Swim England since 2017.”
Leisure centres were hard hit by the pandemic. While some are closed for good, others are struggling to keep up with demand. ukactive warns 85 per cent of public pool operators must reduce services in the next six months to cope with demand. This means that hundreds, and potentially thousands, of leisure centres, gyms and swimming pools may be forced to shut their doors as a result of rising energy bills. Costs are estimated to have risen from an industry total of £500m in 2019 to between £1.0bn and £1.2bn in 2022.
To help pools stay open as the cost-of-living crisis bites, leisure centre operators should look at cost-saving measures such as lowering pool temperatures and dimming lights. To help tackle the national chlorine shortage, people can take steps to keep the water as clean as possible by showering and avoiding the use of lotions, deodorant and perfumes before entering the pool.