Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Chairman: I should like to make two preliminary remarks before we start. The first is that I cannot remember any inquiry we have launched which has been greeted with such a huge amount of evidence submitted by public and organisations. I think that augers well for this session today. The second is that I ought to make a declaration of interest, namely that I have been involved in the campaign to bring Manchester Victoria Baths back into use and Gill Wright is a valued constituent of mine.

Derek Wyatt

  1. Gill, can you quickly tell us whether you are open or closed? If you are closed, what is it that you really want to open again.
  (Ms Wright) The swimming pool is closed; it has been closed since March 1993. We particularly want to open one of the swimming pools. It was built with three and it currently has two pools. We particularly want to open one of the swimming pools and the Turkish baths at Victoria Baths. There is scope for providing a lot of other community facilities within the building as well because it is a very large building.

  2. What is the position of English Heritage with regard to these types of pools?
  (Mr Velluet) In this context we are primarily involved with listed swimming pools, although I stress that we recognise there are many other pools up and down the country which are not listed but which may be of historic or architectural interest and which are of course of major community interest and concern. We are seeking to work with local authorities and local communities in encouraging the effective use of listed swimming pools. Insofar as we are able, we are seeking to work towards grant assistance for such projects which will bring pools back into use and working with the local authorities and the community in terms of planning and listed building scenarios which will affect their restoration and repair. We are not there as the primary focus of activity, we are there to assist and support within the parameters set by formal legislation and guidance from central government.

  3. What relationship have you had with Gill then, in the nicest possible way?
  (Mr Velluet) A modest one to date.

  4. Is that a bone of contention or has it been helpful?
  (Ms Wright) No, it is not; English Heritage are very supportive. They have recently awarded a grant of £150,000 towards urgent works at Victoria Baths.

  5. Is there a weakness in the law currently which would be relevant to all historical buildings but in particular to the baths situation?
  (Mr Velluet) When you say weakness in the law, it is not so much the law as the structure under which we operate our grant regimes. Outside London our grant regimes are specifically targeted towards Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings and there are very few listed swimming pool buildings which are of such high grading. The majority of listed swimming pools are in the Grade II category and our grants regime, as set by Government, by legislation, does not provide our capacity to give money towards Grade IIs other than in the context of much broader area-based initiatives. In Greater London it is different because we inherited the powers and resources of the GLC and we do have a greater involvement with Grade II listed buildings within London. There is an anomalous situation between London and the rest of the country, where we are restricted in our ability to engage in Grade IIs outside London.

  6. Is there anything the others would like to comment on either about heritage or about the local position in law?
  (Mr D'Souza) Savio D'Souza from Govanhill Pool in Glasgow. The real problem is that the whole approach to swimming is very disjointed. Sport England and Sport Scotland have issued similar reports saying there is a big funding crisis after many years of neglect of these pools. A huge investment is needed in order to look after these pools. What we are trying to do is encourage some community involvement as it is a community resource and give them an opportunity to be involved in that discussion to save these pools. That applies across the country. These are valuable resources of the local community and a framework needs to be set up.

  7. Trevor Brooking said to us in evidence when we were talking about Picketts Lock that he thought an investment was required of £5.4 billion to repair and just keep the current swimming pools. Forgive me, but that is a huge amount of money, so it is unlikely it is going to come. I cannot work out how the swimming will get funded in the future. I think that is the crisis we have.
  (Ms Clark) There are several areas which need attention beyond the English heritage. Most of those pools are in areas of high poverty, where they are often the only amenity and often much larger than the swimming pool alone, therefore could do a lot more for the community. The size of the building does mean that usually after about 100 years of neglect they do need quite a big investment by the local authority. In Hackney we estimate it will only be about £3.5 million to bring it back into modern use with a long-term life. The other problem we find is that the pools are less and less seen as a public amenity. They should be seen in the same light as libraries, etc. For example, eight of our local schools took swimming off the curriculum on the closure of the pool.[5] However, they have also been seen, certainly in local authorities, more and more as something which ought to be making a profit. That is a key tension between the amenity aspects as a community resource and the income generation aspect of pools. We would really stress looking at the pools in the context of the overall community rather than just as a swimming pool. Picketts Lock is some way outside London. A lot of these in central London do not actually need that level of investment.

  (Ms Corr) Barbara Corr from Marshall Street Baths, Soho. In Marshall Street which is owned by Westminster City Council a private sector leisure operator was prepared to put in £5 million of the £7.1 million needed to refurbish them and bring the pool back into use. There was a shortfall of £2 million which Westminster City Council were not prepared to spend. It was £2 million and it is in a very densely populated area. Those people do not have a pool for lack of £2 million.

Michael Fabricant

  8. I am very pleased to hear Paul Velluet say that he sees the role of English Heritage as being one to assist and support those organisations trying to restore pools. Could you give us a little more insight into what work you have actually undertaken?
  (Mr Velluet) Within the London context it is a very close relationship, working with London's local planning authorities in seeking to encourage them to have regard to the obligations of looking after their listed buildings, pools included, to look into ways of effecting their repair and bringing back into use where they have ceased use, or disposing of them in an appropriate way which keeps the use and the building. We have a very, very limited allocation of grant funding available from central government. It is spread very, very thinly across the country and certainly in London. If I might just refer to the level of funding related to the burden, if it seems a burden, of listed buildings in their care, in London there are something like 40,000 listed buildings and our expenditure on grants in London was limited last financial year to £3.6 million. Nationally we had secular grant of £8.6 million available last financial year. Relate that to the numbers of listed buildings in the country, which is something approaching half a million. We can offer a very, very thin spread of grant assistance to building owners, including local authorities. We seek to channel what limited funds we have into projects which will lever-in other support. Certainly—in deprived areas, areas of significant stress and building decay, we would hope the local authority had the capacity to lever-in other major sources of both grant and private sector funding to which we can contribute.

  9. I just want to explore another area. I am going to be honest with you. My experience with English Heritage has not been a happy one. I represent Lichfield and there have been instances where for example English Heritage say white gloss must be used but it must be linseed oil based paint. It looks the same as any other paint, except it costs eight times as much, lasts a quarter of the time and is highly inflammable. There are other examples of where building materials are having to be used which are not as robust and yet are more expensive. Over the last year or two I have had a long history regarding the restoration of church bells where there was a Millennium Lottery grant for this and English Heritage seemed to prevent nearly every church from having this done. I just want to look to some of the other witnesses. Have you had any problems? Maybe swimming pools are modern enough for English Heritage not to prevent you from getting on with the work of restoration that you want, or maybe what they ask of you is not too costly.
  (Mr D'Souza) From the Scottish perspective, part of the problem is how to apply for such grants. There is not a great deal of support on how to apply for these grants, what funding is available, what criteria there are for the different sources of funding and that is part of the problem we have experienced.

  10. Has anyone had money and English Heritage has come along and said you cannot do it like that, you have to use these materials.
  (Ms Wright) Our experience to date is that English Heritage have been incredibly supportive and they are the one body which is saying to Manchester as a city, not just as a local authority, that this is not just an old swimming pool, this is a national asset and it has to be protected. We shall have to make some intervention into the structure of Victoria Baths if they are going to have a long-term future, but to date English Heritage have been very practical and pragmatic in their approach. I have every confidence that they will let us make the few changes we have to make if we are going to bring Victoria Baths back into full use.

  11. I am pleased to hear that.
  (Ms Corr) I would agree that English Heritage have been very helpful in trying to put pressure on Westminster City Council to re-open this pool rather than leave it lying empty.
  (Ms Clark) From the Haggerston point of view we should like more pressure because the building is visibly deteriorating. Windows were left open, despite the fact that it was meant to be boarded up, which have allowed rot to get in. We think there is an issue about the inspections. Having said that, they have inspected and they have demanded that works be carried out which were carried out, but it was minimal maintenance and the building is still deteriorating.
  (Mr Velluet) I am sorry about your difficulties on what I assume is a highly graded listed building. I can think of very, very few examples of the thousands of buildings my team deals with each year in Central and West London where there has been a concern about the exact kind of paint being used. I suspect it must have been a grant issue. The fact is that the decisions on works to listed buildings are not made by English Heritage. They are made either by the local planning authority or by the Secretary of State whom we seek to advise. In London there is a greater power inherited by the GLC, but the decisions are not ours, they are for the local authorities. On grant issues, certainly if public money is being spent on an important listed building, then we follow Government advice, set out in PPG15, that the right standards and materials, details and professional supervision apply. I shall happily take back your concern and ask my regional colleagues to look into it.

  Michael Fabricant: They know; they know.

Ms Shipley

  12. I have a past relationship with English Heritage in that I once wrote a book for English Heritage on its lesser known sites. I also swim three times a week roughly. What I am going to say might upset the people here quite a lot. Tell me why these baths should be saved? I know many of them are delicious pieces of architecture. I know that and I did post-graduate work on architecture. I know about the architecture; super. As a real, real community resource, I am not convinced by what you have said so far. Somebody like me can go in and I am quite well off and I enjoy my swimming and I swim up and down and think this is nice, swim, swim, swim, this is lovely and out I get again. What I am really interested in is disability access, children having access - my child would not like those big pools, thank you very much, she needs a slope going into it—people learning to swim, having all the right access to pools with things to get them in and out of pools, all these sorts of things. So the huge amount of money the upkeep of these delicious buildings would take when we have resources not going in to the "me-too" campaign for all those who desperately need it and all the serious swimmers who want to put in the miles.
  (Ms Wright) You might assume that a modern swimming pool was better adapted, for example for disabled access and I would argue with that in a lot of cases. Victoria Baths, like a lot of pools of the period, were built with steps going down into the water rather than ladders. Although it does not have beach access as some fun pools have, it actually has very good access for disabled people and people who might not label themselves disabled but who are nervous about entering the water down a ladder, turning backwards or jumping into the pool. A young woman who lives in the council houses just adjoining Victoria Baths joined our campaign recently. She is in her mid-20s, she is partially sighted and epileptic. We came down to look at pools in London, comparable healthy living centres. That was the first time she had swum since Victoria Baths had closed because she could not walk to a pool and she could not go down steps, so she would not access alternative facilities in Manchester. The biggest issue was transport. We have a wonderful new Commonwealth pool near the centre of Manchester, but it is full of students, it is full of people who can drive to the multi-storey car park, it is full of people who happen to be on the right bus route in and out of town. The bus routes in and out of Manchester are great but if you try to cross the city you can be left for three quarters of an hour or an hour with wet hair and hungry children. You do not do that more than once. The biggest, biggest issue is transport. You admitted you drive to a pool, but not everyone can drive to a pool.

  13. I did not say that. I walk to my pool.
  (Ms Wright) I beg your pardon. I thought you mentioned driving at some point in your submission. Some people can drive to pools. Better off people will access centralised facilities but they also over-face nervous swimmers and people who do not currently swim. I really, really have to take objection to the facilities planning model which has been put forward by Sport England. It is based on current participation levels. We could do much, much better than that. There are loads of people who want to swim, who are not swimming now. The waiting list at the local swimming club where I teach proves that. We have a waiting list which is 50 per cent of the capacity of our club. Those people are not going to the new pool, because it is twice as expensive, it is a car journey or two bus rides away. They are not swimming; their children are not swimming. Local facilities are important and also the wealth of history which is in them. Yes, they are beautiful buildings but it is not just about the architecture, it is about the social history which is in that building. Victoria Baths represents a big rich slice of Manchester's social history. If it does not come back into use as a swimming pool, you are turning your back on that big slice of history and saying that ordinary Manchester people's history is not important, but it is.
  (Ms Clark) Very few of us are there just for the heritage. They are a local community resource in the very nature of the areas. Sixty-two per cent of our residents are living in high rises in Shoreditch. Car ownership is 32 per cent. To get to a local baths means, if you cannot walk to it, £2 for the average family to get to their local swimming pool. It is not only the swimming for local people. For example there is a mental health unit which used it for swimming therapy and can no longer afford to do so. There is a local boat club based in our community on the canal which used it for training local kids to start using the canal. They have now had to close their books last summer and it has added additional costs for them to use other pools. We have three Olympic hopefuls and we have the names and details of those Olympic hopefuls. They are now severely restricted in their access to other pools. It is a community flagship in an area which has very, very few local amenities. Yes, it is a good building and that adds to the flagship quality, but it is the pool and the therapy of the water in our local community which really counts.

  Ms Shipley: I actually agree with you.

Mr Bryant

  14. I do not. I used to be Vice-Chair of Arts and Leisure on Hackney Council. I have just been listing the pools which are within striking distance. There is the Lido at Hackney, there is the Ironmonger Row Baths, the Hoxton Sports Centre, there is the Michael Sobell Centre, the Holloway Baths, York Hall, the old Golden Lane. There are many swimming pools within striking distance of Haggerston.
  (Ms Clark) The Lido has closed. The Britannia is one of those leisure pools and you cannot use it for proper swimming. It is also not suitable for a number of local people for a variety of reasons. The other pools are some distance.

  15. There is a brand new pool.
  (Ms Clark) Clissold Park Pool is not yet open but from some parts of Shoreditch that would require three buses to reach and the cost of those buses.

  16. It is within two miles; it is within a half-hour walk.
  (Ms Clark) Even if it is two miles, it is along very busy roads and I think you will find that a family of four walking there and then back is not something which is likely to happen.

  17. As I understand it, you are talking about £3.5 million being spent and that seems to me to be a considerable amount of money, not a small amount of money, for baths which were used by how many people every year?
  (Ms Clark) The details are in the business plan which you have all received. I could look it up but the critical issue is that it was being run down anyway, it was not properly heated, etc. It was being run down at the time those figures relate to. I would also add that the cost of the swimming pool at Clissold is £20 million. We are talking about £3.5 million which is not just the pool, is also the local amenity and the healthy living centre aspects which will match the swimming in importance.

  18. I am sorry to be a bit obsessed about Haggerston. Having swum in it many times and having used the gym there for a couple of years, I can see the architectural merits of the building and indeed it was used for several pop videos, was it not?
  (Ms Clark) There is a lot of interest from the arts point of view.

  19. It probably earned more money from pop videos than people swimming there. It is a genuine question: is it a really good use of taxpayers' money or Lottery money, which is taxpayers' money in a different guise, to fork out another £3.5 million for yet another building, when there are plenty of other facilities for swimming in the area?
  (Ms Clark) If you ask local people, and indeed the Haggerston Pool Action Group which I am representing here has had massive support from a whole range of local people, including local schools, local facilities such as the mental health centre I have referred to, they do see it as a unique resource. Yes, there are other pools, there are other pools people could get to. The whole point in a rundown community like Haggerston is that it is one of the few assets they have. It is very well loved. It had been run down and one of the questions is why had it been run down over the years? It had been run down which meant it was not promoted as much, it was not as user-friendly as it might have been. Nonetheless the support from the local community shows that it is a flagship project that people want. Our business plan around the investment—and I believe you have had information circulated about our proposal about integrating it into local housing schemes—shows it is a real runner as a community resource to bring it back into the heart of the community.

5   See Appendix 38, p Ev 119. Back

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