Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Friends of Marshall Street Baths, Soho


  Marshall Street is in Soho just behind Oxford Circus. The first public baths were built on the site by the Vestry of St James in 1850 and the present building, then known as The Westminster Public Baths, was built in 1928. The beautiful ticket hall opens straight onto the main pool which receives natural light from a stunning barrel vaulted roof, the pool and surround being lined with marble. There is also a smaller pool and several floors of additional accommodation. The building is listed Grade II. The Marshall Street Baths were built with public money for the health and well being of local people, residents and workers. This need still exists but the Baths were closed by Westminster City Council in August 1997.

  The Friends of Marshall Street formed to prevent the closure of the Baths and we are submitting this proof of evidence today on behalf of the nearly 5,000 people who signed a petition in 1997 objecting to the closure. Our stated aim is for the pool to be reopened for swimming as soon as possible to the public, residents, schools, workers and visitors alike, at affordable prices to local residents and open for at least the same times as prior to closure. We wish to retain the architectural integrity of the main pool and ticket hall.

  Very few swimmers at Marshall Street would feel qualified to discuss "The sport of swimming", rather we enjoy the pleasure of swimming, the pleasure of exchanging for a short while the exhaust laden air of central London for the entirely different medium of clear blue water, the pleasure of an energising break in the middle of a deskbound day or of shedding the load in the evening and floating. Swimming can be safely enjoyed by people of all ages, whatever their degree of fitness. It can be contemplative or companionable, competitive or therapeutic.

  An additional pleasure at Marshall Street was to swim in a lovely space, an open bright day-lit space in a district of dark narrow streets. Months before the closure the Marshall Street Baths were voted one of the 10 most beautiful public pools in the country. I have seen people stop in their tracks walking down that rather gloomy street past the reticent facade and through the open doors glimpsing sunlight sparkling on a large expanse of blue water. The Baths are now on the Buildings at Risk register.

  The Baths were immensely popular right up to their closure. Typical Marshall Street swimmers included the children from the primary schools of St George's, Hanover Square, All Souls, Foley Street, Soho Parish School and off-duty police from the nearby section house, the water polo team and the Saturday morning water babies with their parents and wings, the over 50's aqua aerobics and the lunchtime and after work hordes thrashing up and down, the Down's syndrome group on Sundays, laughing and splashing and the gossiping friends in the medium lane, the lady with the elaborate hairstyle and the swanlike neck and the man who used to take off his leg before getting in the pool and leave it standing rather surreally on the side.

  People in Soho and Fitzrovia, like those in many inner city neighbourhoods are severely lacking in public open space. This is a particular deprivation in an area where there are no school playing fields and people do not have their own gardens. It is a densely populated area creating a huge local need. The Marshall Street Baths provided probably the only opportunity for healthy recreation for all sorts of people in this locality.

  This part of central London is constantly congested by traffic, despite the fact that fewer households here own cars than in most parts of the country. This makes it difficult to reach alternative facilities that, in terms of distance, are not far away. If the government wishes to reduce reliance on the private car, there need to be local amenities in inner cities so that people who eschew private transport, cannot afford it or are too old or too young to use it, are not excluded. Out of town sports centres cannot replace the local pool. We have the example of out of town supermarkets versus local shops to show us how moribund the result can be. Enough people live within walking distance of Marshall Street to keep the pool busy.

  At a time when there is a debate about the health problems of children who no longer walk to school, a local amenity such as the Marshall Street Baths would seem more relevant than ever. In inner cities children who can swim should be able to walk to their local pool rather than rely on (sometimes absent) parents to take them. Swimming is one of the healthiest forms of all round exercise and it is probable that encouraging people who swim regularly could prevent many serious medical problems. Money spent on swimming could save money on medical bills.

  Financial support to such a local amenity would provide immeasurably greater benefit to the health of local people and to the health of the local community than could be measured on a balance sheet. If any local authority were in a position to provide that support, we would imagine that Westminster City Council is that authority. Yet, despite the fact that the Council is wealthy, it has consistently insisted that the Marshall Street Baths be self-funding—something that is rare for a public swimming pool. Funds have not been forthcoming to carry out the maintenance and repairs necessary to a building of this age. We would like to point out that the VAT burden is onerous and means that accountants will always prefer a new building to an old one because of the exemption. We would like the government to consider the way in which these old buildings are unnecessarily penalised through VAT.

  Despite a discouraging history, we would like to work with the City Council to re-open the pool as soon as possible. At the last count the bill for structural repairs and refurbishment was £7.2 million. The City Council, who wished to go into partnership with a leisure operator, have said the work must be carried out at no cost to them? We have never objected to parts of the building generating a profit. The last negotiations with a leisure operator collapsed when there was a shortfall of £2 million. The building was mothballed. Recently the City Council put notices outside the building to say it will reopen shortly. When asked when and how there is a polite, placatory but deafening silence.

3 December 2001

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