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Public Swimming Baths

Volume 456: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

I can guarantee that if “Big Brother” applies to become a sport, it will not be accepted.

Access to good quality sporting provision, including swimming pools, is an essential part of enabling people to lead healthier lives and to participate in sport. There are currently 4,400 swimming facilities across England that are open to the public. Some 62 per cent. are owned by the local authority or the education sector and more than half are pay-and-play facilities. Analysis of pools opening in 2004-05 shows that 131 have opened across the country. More public pools have opened than closed. Since 1997, just under £250 million of lottery investment has gone to swimming—the largest amount given to any sport.

The Minister may know that I have been part of a campaign in my constituency to get an indoor 50 m swimming pool. Given that the United Kingdom gained 52 medals in swimming at the Athens Olympics, what are the Government doing to encourage local authorities to keep the existing facilities for swimmers, as well as developing new facilities for our elite athletes, so that that record can continue?

The hon. Gentleman may need to do a bit more calculation when it comes to the medals won, but we will put that on one side.

There has been huge investment in swimming. I contacted Sport England before I came here this afternoon and it has received no application from Peterborough about a 50 m pool. If the hon. Gentleman wants to take that up, he can. Corby borough council is starting the construction of a new 50 m pool this week. That is about 45 minutes or 25 miles from the centre of Peterborough. The project is fully funded by the local authority, which is paying £18 million. Even saying that, it will cost the local authority some £500,000 in continued revenue to make sure that the pool stays open. There will be a new pool by 2008.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that there was huge disappointment in Bolsover when we did not manage to get sufficient lottery funds several years ago? We are thankful that we can restore the campaign now because of the Olympics and because it will be necessary to have more swimming pools in other parts of the country. Is everything going okay?

I hope that we can get a swimming pool in Bolsover so that my hon. Friend can have a swim there before he retires. Seriously—[Interruption.] He is a good swimmer. In December last year, a project team was put in place. It will report in mid-March on the feasibility aspect. As I understand it, things are going okay to date. There will be further meetings. I hope that by the end of March, we will be able to report on that feasibility study and that that project will be able to go ahead.

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s commitment to swimming and swimming pools—a view that I am sure is shared by the Liberal Democrats. Is he aware that, of the six pools in my constituency, three of them—in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—will be closed by the Liberal Democrat-controlled district council? What can he do to help me in my efforts to persuade the council to change its mind, or to bring in private finance to assist those pools to stay open?

I hope that Liberal Democrat Members were listening to that and will persuade their colleagues on the council to revisit that decision. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for local authorities to determine their sports strategies. They work with Sport England. If he writes to me on the matter, I will contact Sport England and the local authority to see whether what it is doing is in line with the broad policy that Sport England has laid out.

I would not expect my right hon. Friend to be aware of an administrative problem that affects the Portobello water polo club in Edinburgh, but he will know that it is one of the best water polo clubs in the United Kingdom. Will he take this opportunity to express the Government’s full support for water polo and, in particular, will he take the opportunity to visit the club when he comes to Edinburgh?

That is a devolved matter, but I hope that Scotland will join the water polo team that will compete in the 2012 Olympics. I hope that we will have an excellent water polo team for 2012. If Prince William wants to play, we are more than likely to recruit him as well. We are now investing in the Great Britain water polo team so that, hopefully, they can go to Beijing in 2008, and so that we will definitely have a first class team for 2012. I hope that some of the Scots will be in that team.

As the Minister is apparently selecting the water polo squad, such is his power, perhaps he can select some sites for new swimming pools, too. It is great to have elite swimming pools, but he must remember that the vast majority of people will not be elite swimmers. There appears to be a swimming pool divide in this country between the major cities and towns and smaller rural towns. Will he examine again not only the provision of lottery funding for swimming pools, but the running costs of such pools, which can be very high? Will he also ensure that people living in rural areas have as much access to swimming pools as those who live in cities and large towns?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been taking up with Sport England the question of how we can rationalise on swimming pools. Some pools have a subsidy of more than £6 a swimmer, although several local authorities have got it down to something like 50p a head. As I have indicated, even a brand new 50 m pool will cost a local authority £500,000 a year to keep it operational. There are serious questions about swimming pools. The recent soaring energy prices have hit swimming pools hard. We must make the pools as cost-effective and energy efficient as possible so that we do not have to give subsidies to swimming pools that should be going to other sports. That is not to say that subsidies will not go to swimming pools—that will be inevitable because otherwise the cost of swimming would be prohibitively high. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point up with Sport England so that it can examine the formula.