The neglect, deterioration, and level-up lies that characterize Britain’s pools and recreation facilities
You hear one refrain repeated repeatedly in the din caused by the NHS’s demise. The main point is so obvious as to be almost banal: as the chaos worsens, it serves as a reminder of the UK’s serious issues with the issues of disease prevention, lifestyle, and nutrition collectively referred to as public health, as well as of how severely the health service has been underfunded and neglected.
Doctors I recently spoke with described the dreadful experience of seeing the same patients enter and exit their wards over an extended period of time. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and a long list of other disorders that account for a large number of admissions are all well known to us, and we know that they are frequently rooted in obesity, sedentary lifestyles, poor diets, and other factors. The causes of fractures and falls in elderly adults share many of the same elements. Once more, the need for a more preventive approach to health is glaringly obvious, but what that would actually entail in real life is still largely unknown.
It is obvious that this is a nation that has to improve its ability to care for itself. However, despite obvious facts concerning the connection between poverty and poor health being routinely disregarded, public health is also hampered and harmed by a pitiful failure to link one area of policy with another. Try this as particularly vivid evidence of that very British syndrome: while hospitals crumble and collapse, so too do neighborhood recreation centers and swimming pools.
The recent closures in cities including Huddersfield, Milton Keynes, Rye in East Sussex, Coventry, and Hull are all documented in the news archives. People in Gateshead are awaiting the council’s decision about two significant recreation centers, which could mean the end of swimming pools, fitness centers, and squash courts. One prominent local physician recently addressed the issue: “Take an underdeveloped area with significant health inequities. The areas of said disadvantaged areas with the fewest public exercise facilities should be removed. Track the state of your health. The residents of Gateshead don’t deserve to participate in this experiment.
The cost of heating public pools has frequently tripled. The government unveiled its new energy bill discount program last week. It will run for a year and offer two tiers of financial assistance to enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and the public sector. For “energy and trade-intensive industries,” the highest rung is set aside. Pools and recreation centers have been left off the list, while museums, libraries, and even “botanical and zoological gardens and nature reserve activities” are included. That, in the opinion of the national governing body Swim England, “flies in the face of earlier declarations from the government regarding the value of physical activity and lowering demands on the NHS.”
There is more to this story. From the 1960s onward, many swimming pools and sports facilities were constructed. The average lifespan of a public swimming pool, according to Swim England, is 38 years, which implies that many nearby facilities are currently in a condition of disrepair. As with so many other things, George Osborne is to blame for the mess: local public spending was drastically cut during the post-2010 austerity frenzy, so neither renovations nor replacements have been made. If nothing changes, the number of swimming pools in England risks declining by more than 40% by 2030. To make matters worse, the pandemic created a gaping hole in the leisure budgets of authorities that has yet to be filled.
A tragedy is developing as a result. Everyone should know how to swim; it’s a fundamental human ability and a great way to socialize and stay in shape. Typically, public pools collaborate with schools to offer swimming classes. As the former Olympic swimmer Greg Whyte recently put it, “Non-swimming children become non-swimming adults… and non-swimming parents have non-swimming children,” a quarter of the children who graduated from primary school in England in 2022 were unable to swim 25 meters.
Beyond that, there is a wide range of information, much of it directly related to health care: my mother, for instance, wears a heart pacemaker and belongs to a group of senior citizens who meet at their neighborhood recreation center once a week to use the gym. What we typically think of as sporting facilities are also a crucial component of communities’ last lines of defense against loneliness and isolation among shuttered libraries and community centers. If they close, what is left?
Rural areas with outdoor pools, which frequently serve as the sole remaining locations for exercise and enjoyment, are a minor but crucial aspect of this story that is all too frequently overlooked. In and around Dartmoor, there are numerous instances of this, like the little Devon town of Buckfastleigh, where child poverty is 30% and the community pool has been operating for 125 years. The pool is used for swimming lessons by three nearby elementary schools. Between May and September, it is completely open, but during this time of year, Sundays are reserved for cold-water swimming. Its annual energy costs were roughly £8,000 in 2019. It is currently $26,000 and is expected to increase to as high as $34,000. Its operating expenses currently have a £20,000 hole.
Pam Barrett, one of the crucial figures who maintains the pool open, and I chatted last week. It’s our lone remaining recreation center, she remarked. We have rugby and football teams for athletic young men, but what about the rest of us? It’s the pool for women, children, those with disabilities, and senior citizens. That’s it. The same is true for other nearby outdoor pools, including those at Chagford, Moretonhampstead, Ashburton, and Bovey Tracey. Barrett informed me, “We’re really, really worried. “I don’t know where we’re going to get the £20,000 annually. How can we continue to raise money?
There are some obvious solutions to the pool’s situation, which also apply to much larger local assets: modifications to the tax laws covering sports facilities and pools, ringfenced increases in the amount of money given to councils by the federal government, and an urgent placement of exercise facilities at the highest level of energy assistance. A fresh blow to the fragile notion of leveling up, and another evidence of our current national condition—sickness and mayhem in all those wards and surgeries, and at the top, a pretty terrible stupidity—will only fester in their absence.