Going under: energy price rises leave UK pools in deep trouble

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Heating bill increases of up to 150% will lead to the widespread closures of UK swimming pools without an emergency government bailout, ministers have been told.

Campaigners say that even if financial help is provided, swimmers will have to accept colder pools and higher prices.

The sport governing body Swim England and ukactive, which represents gym and pool operators, met the sports minister Nigel Huddleston on Tuesday to make an urgent plea for emergency funds to keep pools open.

Speaking before the meeting, the Swim England chief executive, Jane Nickerson, said: “We need some acute support now. At the moment swimming is not viable unless it’s supported. Our real worry is that doors will just shut because operators will find they can’t afford to run their pools. We need a bailout now because you can’t suddenly make a pool energy efficient.”

The chief executive of ukactive, Huw Edwards, agreed. He said: “Fitness and leisure operators are reaching tipping point as rising energy costs bite, forcing them to consider price rises, service restrictions or permanent closure. Pool operators, in particular, are facing huge bills, with hundreds of facilities across the country just months away from closures and service restrictions.”

The fear of widespread closures comes after the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is building a private pool in his North Yorkshire mansion, ignored calls for a long-term strategy to keep pools open as part of his spring statement.

Nickerson said public pools were struggling to cope with a total energy bill of £1.25bn this year compared with £500m in 2019, at a time when the sector was still reeling from forced pool closures during lockdown. “Providers have run their reserves down to cope with the pandemic,” she said.

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One of the biggest public pool operators, GLL, which trades under the name Better, says its energy bills have increased by at least 150% since April 2019. Its chief executive, Mark Sesnan, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said: “We are heading for a crisis and it needs urgent action. The minister went away with a clear message that we need something to be done. Although he was clear that he would struggle to make a special case to the Treasury.”

Sesnan added: “People need to realise that this is a real and present danger to swimming in the UK. And it will be very difficult to maintain the current stock of pools. The business model has been completely disrupted. Just to meet the energy price increase we need an extra £1 for every person who uses a pool.”

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He said the public would also need to accept “more realistic” prices of about £7 or £8 a swim, as well as reduced opening hours and more stringent temperature controls to save on heating bills.

Nickerson said: “Letting people swim in wetsuits is fine for someone like me doing lengths, because I can swim fast to keep warm. But you can’t teach children to swim in cold water – parents won’t take their kids if they see their teeth chattering.”

She added: “If you shut the doors on these pools now you are losing out on kids learning to swim. You won’t die if you don’t learn to kick a football, but you can certainly drown if you don’t learn to swim.”

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She is also worried that price rises could make swimming unaffordable for many families. Nickerson said: “We don’t want public pools to become like private health clubs. It should be an activity for everyone, not just for those who can afford it.”

Edwards pointed out the wider health benefits of swimming. He said: “More than 1 million children missed out on swimming lessons during the pandemic and many people’s physical and mental health deteriorated without access to pools and gyms. We need the government to act with urgency to support pools and gyms so that our nation’s health inequalities do not widen any further.”

Pool closures, or threatened closures, have already been reported, including in Halifax, Newport, Shropshire, Falmouth, Croydon and Keswick.

Even before the increase in fuel prices, a report by Swim England last September estimated that 40%, or 1,868, of the 4,336 public pools in England could be forced to close by 2030. Nickerson said: “There was a massive building programme in the 1960s and 70s but those pools have come to the end of their lifespan.”

She said the energy crisis had increased the urgency of replacing those inefficient buildings. “The sector is looking at what it can do to save energy and retrofit buildings. But that won’t happen overnight. And they will also need grants to do it because the payback period is so long,” she said.

A government spokesperson said: “We are in regular contact with Ofgem, business groups and energy suppliers to understand the challenges they face and see how they can best be supported.”

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