In Birmingham City Council’s budget consultation for 2014 it was announced that Northfield swimming baths will close by 2017. There’s been some conflicting information flying around and the issue has turned into a bit of a political point scoring match, so we thought it might be helpful to examine what we know so far.
The council and local Labour councillors and MP are touting this as a positive move, with plans to build a new leisure centre with pool somewhere within Northfield District. The plan is to find a private leisure company to run the new centre which will be publicly owned.
These plans are in the very early stages and discussions are ongoing – it is envisioned that the new centre should open in 2017. No site has been identified as yet – BCC say it will either be on the existing site or elsewhere in Northfield District.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Conservative councillors and prospective parliamentary candidate Rachel Maclean are up in arms. Unfortunately, they seem to be focusing on some, but not all, of the facts and people are alarmed and confused!
In a letter to the Bromsgrove Standard, Rachel Maclean writes: “Labour-run Birmingham City Council has recently confirmed our local swimming pool in Northfield is to close in two or three years time, even though it has been recently refurbished, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
And she suggests Northfield residents will have to travel to the new pool at the University of Birmingham to swim saying: “This is much further to travel for Northfield residents, and is in no way an adequate replacement.” [Full letter Page 11]
And at a public meeting on District budget proposals last week in Longbridge, Cllr Reg Corns (Con, Northfield) angrily challenged Labour councillors present about the pool closing and people having to use the University pool, before storming out of the meeting without waiting for a reply.
So, what are the facts surrounding the plans to close the pool? Will closing the old centre and building a new one be a good or bad move? Will we ever have to travel all the way to the Uni just for a dip?!
- Council leader Sir Albert Bore says that, this year, around £120 million savings will have to be made if the council is to meet the expected £825m shortfall in funds from central government estimated between 2011-17 [based on estimated amounts of funding received form central government & increased demand and costs]. You can download a PDF file of the budget proposals in full
- As part of a citywide plan, several pools and local leisure facilities (eg Colmers) will close and be replaced by a total of 6 new leisure centres. Based on a similar model to the newly refurbished Harborne. The centres will be built using capital funding loans which income from the centres to BCC will repay. There will be no capital outlay by the council. 5 existing leisure centres across the city will also remain.
- £3 million was spent on refurbishing the baths in 2003
- Funding came from Section 106 money from Northfield Sainsbury’s – section 106 funds are agreed between developers and the council when planning permission is granted for new developments. They are mostly used to benefit public infrastructure.
- We are led to believe that previous refurbishment was expected to have a life of around 15 years – which means the pool would be due for further extensive work in 2018.
- The management of the centres would be put out to tender. They would be managed privately on behalf of the council.
- Where would it be? This has not been confirmed yet – could be on current site if existing building demolished (but the future of the builiding is another issue!) or somewhere else within Northfield District. BCC are still considering options.
- Would it cost more for users? The new facility must provide services at a cost inline with existing facilities in the city and offer the Be Active programme
- Would facilities improve? Again, since no actual proposals have been made yet it is impossible to know exactly what facilities would be on offer, but a pool must be included.
- At the district budget consultation meeting at the Factory last Wednesday, Labour councillors were adamant that there would be no loss of service, with Northfield pool remaining open until a new facility was in place (barring any unforeseen breakdown).
History of building
- Northfield baths opened on 8th May 1937 and were the first in Birmingham to be built solely for the purpose of recreation.
- The building was designed by Henry Simister for the Birmingham Baths Committee. There were two pools, as there are now, with a large cafe overlooking.
- The fitness suite was added in the 1980s.
- The refurbishment in 2003 was the last major spend on the building.
- Situated opposite the Black Horse on Bristol Road South, the building is considered a local landmark.
So there are the facts. Where does this leave us?
Birmingham City Council are closing baths in the city, including Northfield and Tiverton Road in Selly Oak, because they simply can not afford to pay for them any more. This was identified as a problem by the previous council administration (Con), who had to make the first wave of cuts to funding expected by central government during their last years in charge of the council.
However, no-one of any political persuasion wants to see an end to this service. That is why the then Conservative council administration identified a model for saving a public service, privately run and implemented it in Harborne which reopened in 2012 following a £12 million refurbishment. The Harborne pool and leisure centre is now run by DC Leisure. The current Labour administration aim to take the plan forward, opening a total of six new centres with pools across the city.
Unfortunately, since discussions are at such an early stage, it’s impossible for us to envisage whether the new centre will offer an improvement in service. The idea of a shiny new leisure centre and pool sounds like a good one to me, but there are many questions that no-one can answer yet. Where exactly will it be? Who will run it? Will it be better? etc.
Northfield District Conservatives are really using this issue to rouse public support, suggesting to local residents that they will have to travel to the University to swim. This is misleading, as Labour councillors have committed to no loss of service between Northfield Baths closing and the new facility within the district opening.
A petition against the closure has been posted on the council’s e-petitions site, by residents who want the baths to remain where they are.
And the future of the building itself is another issue – if the new leisure centre is built on a different site, can the landmark building be saved and utilised as something else? At the Birmingham City Council meeting on 7th January this year, council leader Sir Albert Bore mentioned demolishing the existing baths and rebuilding on site as an option but it seems that an alternative site is the council’s preferred option.
There are still a couple of District budget proposal meetings to go if you want to question councillors or council officers more on this (or other budget issues!)
So, what do you think? Is closing Northfield baths and the opening of a new, privately run, publicly owned leisure facility in the district a good idea or a bad one?