Photo: Neil Hall/EPA
England has lost almost 400 swimming pools since 2010, with parts of the country with the greatest health needs losing the most.
The national swimming authority said there was “urgent investment needs” in England’s swimming pools after new figures showed the pandemic had accelerated a decade of decline in water facilities.
The Guardian analysis of data collected by Sport England revealed a net decrease of 382 swimming pools across the country since 2010. These figures include municipal and community pools, privately run health facilities, schools and sports clubs. The loss of pools has resulted in an estimated £1bn loss of associated social value through health and community services.
The number of swimming pools in community areas with the highest health deprivation has fallen by 14% over the past 12 years, while those in the least health deprived areas have fallen by 6%, the analysis shows.
In Hartlepool, one of the most deprived areas in the country in terms of health, six of its 12 swimming pools have been closed in the last 12 years. Three were in schools and the other three in gyms or community centers.
While the number of swimming pools in England has fallen since the Conservative government came to power, the pandemic and rising energy costs have accelerated this trend.
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Nationwide, 85 pools have been closed and not replaced since 2019. The number of closures for financial reasons – whether due to bankruptcy or unprofitability of the plants – has doubled compared to the three years before the pandemic.
Brighton and Hove have lost four pools since 2019, more than any other local authority over the same period. Three were lost during the Virgin Active closure in 2021 and one when Sports Direct Fitness in Hove closed in 2022.
Sports governing body UK Active has called on the government to extend its energy bill rebate scheme to leisure centers by recognizing them as intensive energy users. The current energy cost relief expires at the end of March, putting many facilities at risk. According to the panel, 31% of local authorities in England are at risk of losing their leisure centers or seeing reduced services from April 1.
Local government spending figures show that net spending on sports and leisure facilities in England fell by 37% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2021-22.
Thanks to improved physical and mental health, as well as individual, social and community development, swimming activities in leisure centers generated around £375,000 in social value per site last year, according to estimates by sports and data consultancy 4Global. Applied to pool closures since 2010, that means more than £1bn in lost benefits.
A spokesman for Swim England said it was important there were proper facilities in the right places and called for more government support.
They said: “Across the country, many pools are nearing the end of their lives or have already closed, and rising energy costs are putting many more at risk of closure or benefit cuts. There is therefore an urgent need to invest in providing the pools our communities need.
“We have created a vision for the future of facilities that can be more sustainable, but to make them a reality requires government support. The proposed new sports strategy must set out a growth plan to unlock the potential of swimming pools and leisure centers to support the … health and well-being of the nation.”
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Swimming pools aren’t the only sports facilities to see a decline since 2010. The number of squash courts has declined by 20% over the same period and 13% of indoor bowling facilities have also been lost.
On the other hand, bicycle facilities and artificial grass pitches have increased dramatically since 2010, and the number of gyms has steadily increased. The data in the Guardian analysis comes from a live database, so recent records of sports facility closures are subject to change as records for individual centers are updated.
A government spokesman said: “We know that our grassroots sports facilities are struggling with rising operating costs. We have provided an £18bn support package to organizations including clubs, swimming pools, leisure centres, schools, charities and businesses over the winter.
“We have made available £1billion to help ensure the survival of the sport and leisure sector during the pandemic and a further £3.7billion to local authorities to provide essential services such as leisure centers and swimming pools and we are investing £300 Millions of pounds to build or upgrade thousands of base facilities across the UK.”