How Covid-19 could sink the UK’s outdoor swimming pools

Outdoor pools are closing for the winter and, perhaps, forever

7th October 2020

When Stanhope Pool in County Durham started fundraising for new lockers, swimmers couldn’t quite understand it. “People would just come in and say why can’t the council just give you some money,” says 24-year-old pool manager Ruth Haynes. “But it isn’t as easy as the council just buying us some because they don’t own us – they have no responsibility to provide us with those things.”

Like the majority of outdoor pools in the UK, Stanhope Pool is run entirely by volunteers, and reliant on fundraising and grants to stay afloat – even for seemingly small things like lockers. “We’re a charity,” explains Ruth, “ and I think a lot of people are very unaware of that, it’s very much the hidden side of the lido industry.” Even at the best of times, she says “every [outdoor] swimming pool is on a knife-edge”.

Almost 60% of pools haven’t reopened 

As the summer season draws to a close, Lidos across the country should have been looking back at a good year.

“I don’t know about the other pools, but usually the thing that makes our season is the two or three weekends of the [summer] where it feels like the entire population of Carlisle descends on Lazonby and spread out across the school field with their towels,” says Stuart St John, part of the volunteer committee that runs Lazonby Pool in Cumbria.

If anything, August 2020 should have been a bumper month for outdoor pools. Figures from the Met Office show temperatures somewhere in the UK reached 34°C or more for six consecutive days. However, exclusive new research by The Overtake has found that despite restrictions on outdoor pools easing on July 21, more than half haven’t – and won’t – reopen in 2020. If you exclude pools in London, this figure rises to almost 60%. And there’s a real risk some could have shut their doors for good.

The overwhelming majority operate on a financial knife-edge all the time

“Whenever I talk about outdoor pools, ‘knife-edge’ is the phrase I use for a lot of community-run pools,” says Emma Pusill, whose book The Lido Guide lists every outdoor pool in the country. “Some are very lucky and they’ve got a big site and can do all sorts of events, but the overwhelming majority operate on a financial knife-edge all the time, so it doesn’t take very much to tip them over the edge – and the pandemic is that thing.”

Running costs of more than £150,000

Running a pool is an expensive business, with lifeguarding costs alone adding up to £60,000 for year-round cover, although the majority of the UK’s pools are seasonal. Adding in maintenance, heating, and water quality costs, volunteer committees could be looking at an annual bill in excess of £150,000. For many pools this means running at a loss. Chipping Norton Lido in Oxford, for example, reports an annual trading deficit of some £15,000.

“So much of it boils down to money,” adds Ruth, when asked about their decision not to reopen the pool this year. “If we had thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds in the bank, loads of time, loads of notice, the chances are we probably could have managed to open.”

It’s a similar story at Lazonby Pool, as Paul explains that even at the best of times the pool is only viable thanks to the profits from the adjoining campsite. Put simply, if these pools had reopened, they’d have run at even more of a loss.

Lazonby Pool is only financially viable because of the adjoining campsite

However, the decision to stay shut for 2020 wasn’t just about money. As volunteer-run facilities, many of closures were blamed on a lack of notice ahead of restrictions easing or the extra resources needed to make their facilities COVID secure. Run entirely by volunteers, many barely have enough people power during the good times, let alone at an increased staffing level. Earlier this month, Kingsteignton Pool in Devon put out a call for volunteers to help paint their changing rooms. Not a single person replied.

Financial instability and volunteer staffing can cause trouble at the best of times. Add in a pandemic and some experts fear these pools could close for good. “I absolutely do [think we’ll see closures],” says Emma. “Only time will tell – I’m not persuaded that we’re going to be free of this by next summer, so I think we have to be prepared to see some of these pools not reopen next year, unless we get a vaccine that can be spread through the community at speed.”

A reopening bill of millions

Since the golden age of UK lidos in the 1930s, three quarters of the country’s outdoor pools have shut. In Wales, once home to 57 pools, there is just one lido, which was re-opened in 2015 after being closed for almost a quarter of a century. Once closed, reopening a pool can be an almost gargantuan task, regardless of local enthusiasm. 

Chris Ivory is one of the campaigners working to re-open Tynemouth Outdoor Pool. Built in 1925, it last closed its doors in the 1990s. “It’s hard to compare our situation as a derelict site with any other lido that has been more recently closed, but I think it would go without saying that it would always be hard to reopen once closed.” 

While the group has raised an impressive £150,000 since its formation in 2012, this has only covered planning and design consultancies – the team estimate they’ll need up to £4m to reopen, with the earliest possible reopening slated for 2025.

Even if pools are only shut for a year or two, the costs quickly mount up. “If we were closed for, say, three years before someone managed to start a campaign to reopen us […] the amount of damage that would have occurred to the facility would take so much more money to fix,” says Ruth. “Every single year that a swimming pool is closed is more, more time, more effort, more money, and more danger for it to never reopen.”

It’s making decisions about how much money we can lose

Even for the pools that did manage to welcome swimmers this year, it’s been a tough ride. “The sort of spring we had, it would have been a phenomenal start to the season,” reflects Angus Bruce, the chief executive of Sandford Parks Lido in Gloucestershire, “it was the hottest spring on record, we would have been absolutely packed to the gulls.” However, despite missing the start of the season, the team were able to devise a plan to reopen, with capacity cut from 1,600 at any one time to just 100.

Stanhope Pool is currently closed and, the longer it remains so, the more it will cost to reopen

“It’s been a reasonably successful season in that we’ve reopened, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” he continues, “but I wouldn’t say for one minute that we’re popping open the champagne corks at all. It’s been tough. There’s been many weeks that we’ve lost money. As we go into autumnal weather, and how long we’re going to stay open, it’s making decisions about how much money we can lose and whether we can actually weather that storm, not about making money for the bottom line.” 

Despite the struggles with running outdoor pools, every single person we interviewed agreed that lidos were a special part of our cultural landscape worth saving. Many were built by the communities they now serve – both Lazonby and Stanhope were built by local people to teach local children to swim and stop them drowning in quarries or rivers. Though now closed, several of Wales’ outdoor pools were built by the mining communities who used them.

A place for everyone to swim

“It’s really important that we protect that,” says Emma, “because once they’re gone we can’t have that back. The other thing I think is vitally important about them is that they offer an opportunity for swimming for people who would never go to an indoor pool, they’ve probably got a stereotype of indoor pools being full of adrenaline crazed swimmers who are swimming over the top of everyone else – it’s an environment they feel uncomfortable with.”

In contrast, she describes lidos as “very egalitarian places”. “Nobody cares how fast or slow you are, nobody cares how fat or thin you are, how grey your hair is, whether you’re wearing this years’ swimming costume, nobody cares. And because of that, they’re very accessible places for people who wouldn’t otherwise be getting that form of exercise.”

Pools like Lazonby were built to help teach children to swim

For Emma, the key to helping these pools survive is government funding, something she hopes swimming’s national body, Swim England will lobby for. While it has collated data on the total number of pools closed, this hasn’t been broken down into indoor versus outdoor, and it has yet to produce any specific returning guidance for outdoor pools. However, in statement to The Overtake, a spokesperson said the organisation was “devastated to see so many facilities remain closed” and that it was lobbying for “vital ring-fenced funding.”

Emma says those who run outdoor pools are keen to learn from each other about what has worked during the pandemic and what hasn’t. “I hope we’ll see a lot more open next year, but I think it could be unwise to count on all of them reopening,” she says.

It’s clear the time to act to save our lidos is now but Stuart hopes the pandemic could be the catalyst the precarious sector needed. “Ironically, the fact that we’ve had to shut has focused people’s minds,” he tells The Overtake. “A lot of people are realising oh how do they do this? Normally they need volunteers. So I’m really quite hopeful we’ll get more people involved. It’s a joy to have, but it’s a sacrifice to run the place.”

7th October 2020