The Future Management of Cambridge’s Swimming Pools

Monday, January 5th, 2009. 1:35am

Parkside Pools, Cambridge

Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on Thursday the 15th of January 2009 will be discussing an item entitled: “Leisure Management Contract September 2010 Onwards”. Not only does this item have an obscure title, but it is scheduled to be discussed in secret, with the press and public excluded. I believe what is to be discussed under this heading is the contract for the future management of the city’s swimming pools. This is clearly something which many of the city’s residents have an interest in. As well as individuals, organizations based in the city including schools and the universities along with residents groups would I am sure like to be able to see what the council is planning with respect to the future of the City’s pools and offer their input.

One way to ensure there is some open discussion is for members of the public to attend the meeting and ask questions on the future of Cambridge’s Swimming Pools. Information for public questioners is available on the agenda.

Parkside Pools

While Parkside pools are in an impressive building and are very modern, the pools and showers are often cold, and the changing areas can be dirty. The range of facilities, payment options, prices and discounts are not well publicised in reception or online. The Parkside pools website currently states “coming soon” under the major headings of “facilities”, “price list”, “what’s going on” and “centre news”, and has done for some time. For a long period recently even the pool’s timetable was not linked from the relevant page on the City Council’s website. The cold pool particularly appears to deter some older users, though I don’t find it particularly pleasant at times either.

A recently introduced policy of requiring those attending swimming lessons to pay for a swimming session if they arrive early and want to swim in the public lanes prior to their lessons appears to be causing conflict between young people and the lifeguards asked to enforce the policy. It is clearly a scheme designed to improve statistics and raise revenue and is not safety related as those willing to pay are then free to swim. I believe any new contract ought not encourage SLM to behave like this to manipulate statistics. Occasionally rowdy and anti-social behaviour is seen at pools including Parkside and Jesus Green, though there is a lot of subjectivity in what is and is not seen as acceptable.

The fabric and physical design of the changing rooms does not lend itself to being easily kept clean. I would like to see some lessons learnt from some of the better run pools in the country.

Councillor Herbert tabled an oral question for the Full Council meeting on the 4th of December asking Cllr Julie Smith:

What action is the Council taking to tackle erratic pool maintenance and repeated freezing conditions for swimmers at its Parkside pool?

However the thirty minutes alloted for questions had elapsed before this question was reached. The system for questioning executive councillors in this way is flawed as while answers are required to be given to the councillor who asked the question they are not made public. Even the answers which are given during the council meetings are incredibly not routinely minuted and made available to the public.

Other Pools

There are issues with other pools in the City which the council ought ensure are dealt with in the new pool management contract including:

  • Opening Hours of the Learner Pool in King’s Hedges
  • The half-opening of the Jesus Green Pool, (where part of the pool is roped off when only one life-guard is on duty, something which occasionally I have also experienced at Parkside even when there have been a reasonable number of swimmers in the pool)

Need for Secrecy

I fully understand that some elements of contract negotiation have to be carried out in private, to maintain the council’s ability to effectively negotiate and get the best price for these services for City residents. However much discussion, of the kind I have included so far in this post, ought in my view be carried out in public. Items such as methods of agreeing opening hours, pricing, and standards of service such as cleanliness and temperature of the water do not need secret debates. As with most items on City Council agendas where there is to be discussion in secret, I believe what can be dealt with in public ought to be dealt with in public before entering closed session. One problem with labelling agenda items and reports secret is that councillors become wary about what they can discuss with constituents.

The current contract holders, Sports and Leisure Management Limited (SLM) have an advantage as extending their current contract does not incur “contract procurement costs” which would arise if other companies were considered. Even if councillors thought SLM’s performance inadequate they might have to evaluate and balance their concerns with the extra costs of running a broader competition. The Budget Setting Report to the Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on Monday the 19th of January 2009 states that if a procurement process, rather than an extension of the current contract, is opted for the cost of the process will be £70,000. Previously the Council have used a bunch of strategic leisure consultants, Strategic Leisure Limited to advise them on the procurement process. Such consultants are likely to be benefiting from yet more of city resident’s money as the Budget Setting Report also includes £10,000 which the council is proposing to spend on :

Specialist advice to reduce carbon footprint of swimming pools owned by the City Council. Assessment of City Council pools to produce asset investment strategy to deliver reduction in carbon footprint and savings in utility costs. A proportion of Cambridge’s carbon footprint is the result of the activities of Cambridge City Council. In 2005-6 the council’s Leisure Centres emitted over 2000 tonnes of CO2 each year, the largest emissions of any council service area (Cambridge Climate Change and Strategy Action Plan 2008-12)

The fact the City Council own the pools and SLM run them presents a need for tricky balancing acts to be achieved. New equipment may both add to the capital value of the City Council’s assets as well as result in money saving for the SLM, the contract needs to ensure that city residents see the benefits of any savings resulting from new investment they put in. I support running the City’s pools as efficiently as possible, but given that there is a financial incentive to improve efficiency I can not see why the city council need fund the work or employ consultants. What advice can consultants provide which cannot be found in-house at the council or SLM or be obtained from those seeking to supply the City with equipment to enable the more efficient running of the pools?

Perhaps the council could consider looking at geothermal heating?

7 comments/updates on “The Future Management of Cambridge’s Swimming Pools

  1. Geoff Jones

    Thank you for letting me know about this, there are many issues that need to be raised. Maybe the council or us should be conducting a public survey about the pools and their management.
    The Jesus Green shower saga leaps to mind plus the totally disgusting state of Parkside, thinking of the massive corrosion in the supporting columns especially.
    I’m away till the 30th Jan but maybe Terry Gorman and others will be interested in attending the meetings.
    btw Your Name /Email boxes are illegible white on yellow is not a good combination :-)

  2. John Whitby

    INteresting article. The subject of private management of council leisure facilities is a whole can of worms!
    In many ways there is no major change between municipal manageent and private management companies, at the end of the day it is actually down to the individuals managing each site. Get a good manager and you get a good facility (normally), the opposite also applies of course!
    I called Parkside in 2006 when I was asked to comment on Look East News about kids tombstoning from St Neots Town Bridge. Kowing there is a good diving facility at Parkside I called and asked about public access to be told that, on taking over SLM had done a risk assesment and decided it was far to dangerous to allow the public on to the diving boards! So, rather than manage the risk (and manage the facility) they closed the diving boards to public use. This of course is the one facility that will temp youths into a swimming pool, it also reduces bad behaviour by actually offering fun!
    The best answer is of cours to go back to public ownership and management, SLM are not doing it for the benefit of Cambridge, they are there to make a profit, if they can make money from the contract, why can’t the council run it and at the very least reduce the amount they are currently paying?
    Redbridge identified about £200,000. of savings by bringing pool and leisure management back within the council remit by setting up a Trust to manage the facilities.

  3. Richard Article author

    An article in the Cambridge News implies someone there has seen the secret report (or a councillor has leaked its content) as it refers to officer’s recommendations being for councillors to extend the SLM contract.

    I have been told a public report will be produced, but it has not yet been released via the Council’s website.

  4. Anne Garvey

    Can we factor in the dismal display at Jesus Green pool all summer. At its nadir in late summer, the lavatories were not working, the showers busted, and most of all the pool staffed by don’t carish no-hopers who chatted with their backs to the swimmers who struggled to swim lanes in , unbelievably, one single lane with three quarters of the pool roped off ‘for staff shortages’

    Anyone could do better than that.!

  5. Anne Garvey

    And there was the scandal of the snack machine packed with fattening chocolate and crispy snacks.

    The place is going downhill whilst the Council propose to lavish 4.4.million on fiddling about with details on Jesus Green.

  6. Richard Article author

    I think the dive coach commenting above makes a good point; public access to the diving boards ought be restored. It would have to be only at specific set times due to the fact the dive pool is more often than not being used for other purposes with its floor raised to create a shallow pool. When the flume is in operation it is closely supervised, why can’t the diving boards operate in a similar way? My local pool when I was growing up had publicly accessible high diving boards. I think it might attract a new group of people into the pool.

    Also I have had some further thoughts on the new contract. If the council does hire consultants to advise on ways to improve the efficiency of the pools’ heating, will there be something in the contract to enable the council to get the contractor to act on it.

    Lastly the student discount scheme which requires students to buy an upgraded leisure card is convoluted and confusing. I regularly, particularly in October, see students asking if there’s a student discount and getting utterly baffling replies. I’ve also overheard receptionists tell Cambridge University students that as they aren’t really residents in Cambridge, or don’t pay council tax, and are therefore not entitled to the discounts. Many students would have difficulty with the proof of residency requirements which are (Drivers licence, Utilities Bill, Council tax statement), additionally many students also do not have an NUS card which is the required form of proof of student status.

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