East of the M60 looks at proposed swimming pool closures in Ashton-under-Lyne, Denton and Dukinfield
For many people, taking your first swimming lesson is a rite of passage. As well as being a fun activity, it makes for a good spectator sport whether it’s a local swimming gala or The Olympic Games. Without swimming pools, there would be no water polo, synchronised swimming, diving events, or jumping to the bottom of the pool to pick up a brick, with pyjamas on.
The last named activity exemplifies the serious side of learning to swim. As well as its competitive uses and health benefits, it enables you to gain skills in saving lives. Especially if a friend came to grief in the Peak Forest Canal or cast adrift at sea. In the latter stage, it can open a lot of doors in a vocational sense. If nobody knew how to swim, there would be no lifeguards; the RNLI would be stretched further still; where would our frogmen come from? How does one get to find out more about coral reefs, shipwrecks or underwater species?
As much as the public library, the local swimming baths is a force for good. Whereas local authorities are obliged to provide public libraries, there is no safeguards for public swimming baths. Which is why we’ve seen swimming baths transfer to (in 2016 speak) third sector bodies and private operators in the last 30 years. In the last 30 years, we have also seen an expansion of private gymnasia and sports clubs. Fitness First is as much a part of the British street scene as McDonalds or Subway. At face value, we seem to be obsessed with keeping fit, and sticking to New Year’s Resolutions.
But… one problem with New Year’s Resolutions is, they tend to have the longevity of a Rich Tea biscuit in a mug of tea. Or a plastic spoon in a vending machine cup of Oxo. Believe me, they are lethal; that I can concur after previous trips to Dukinfield Baths. Which, in my formative years, was known as the William Andrew Swimming Baths. In the same sort of typeface used on the opening and closing titles of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In dark blue.
Swimming is a sport I have a love-hate relationship. Firstly, my experience was tempered by a burly swimming teacher at Withington Baths (whilst at the late great Ewing School in West Didsbury). Then I regained faith in learning to swim at comprehensive school level. At the same baths which my late Nanna introduced me too in the late 1980s. She preferred Duki Baths to the one in Copley (the water was too cold).
Withington had an impression on me due to its tile work from Pilkingtons. The baths was designed by Manchester Corporation architect Henry Price – Victoria Baths is his more famous work. Dukinfield’s had another impression on me due to its sense of community. Even with the 10′ end scaring the bejesus of me, it was almost as serene a place as the library on Concord Way.
21 years after I did my swimming lessons in my teenage years, some of my worst fears were confirmed. That Dukinfield Baths was among a trio of pools threatened with closure. I feared the worst when I found out about the loss of its sauna; then on seeing a bush growing from the roof I thought, “is anybody going to sort this out?”.
With a maintenance backlog of £2.4 million, Active Tameside (formerly known as Tameside Sports Trust), it is claimed the three pools have long past their useful life. It seems ironic that in the year we the old Ashton Baths reopening as a commercial development, that its successor could be closing.
At one time, Ashton-under-Lyne used to have two swimming baths: one was Hugh Mason House – reopening in a non-sporting capacity. The other was on Ann Street, a small 26′ x 16′ pool for employees of the Oxford Mills. The present Ashton-under-Lyne Swimming Pool was opened in 1975 by Denis Howell, a Labour M.P who was Britain’s first Sports Minister.
Denton Baths is of similar vintage to Ashton’s swimming pool. In common with Ashton, it benefits from an excellent town centre position being close to local bus routes. It adds value to the nearby centre and is neatly positioned for Victoria Park.
The oldest baths of the three is Dukinfield Baths. It opened in 1965 as the William Andrew Swimming Baths and Dukinfield Sauna. The baths were named after a former Dukinfield Alderman and – like the George Lawton Hall was in Mossley – bequeathed to the people of Dukinfield. On opening, the 25 metre pool had a springboard, hence there being a 10′ end so close to the 6′ end. Access to the sauna was gained through a separate entrance.
Of the three, the closure of Dukinfield’s pool could be a most politically sensitive move. Since the Coalition Government’s installation in 2010, and the arrival of its full fat Tory successors last May, Dukinfield has been at the sharpest end of the borough’s spending cuts. The principle of William Andrew’s legacy could be squandered if the proposed Tameside Wellness Centre is anywhere but Dukinfield.
To best serve the people of Denton, Dukinfield and Ashton-under-Lyne (should all three pools close), it is important that the proposed Tameside Wellness Centre should be in Dukinfield!
Lack of joined-up thinking could be party to the closure of Ashton’s pool. Firstly, Transport for Greater Manchester’s Cycle Hub is right next to the pool and its usefulness could be eroded. Secondly, with increased footfall from Tameside College students studying the centre of Ashton-under-Lyne, where would they go for a swim? The easiest ways could be a 348 to Copley Recreation Centre or the 409 to the new sports centre in Oldham.
Furthermore, the lack of a decent swimming facility in the borough’s administrative capital isn’t going to win any friends in Ashton! Most other boroughs in Greater Manchester has a pool in its main commercial centre. Manchester and Salford are exceptions; Altrincham rather than Old Trafford has Trafford MBC’s main pool.
The people of Denton could be similarly inconvenienced. Like Dukinfield’s pool, Denton’s not only has attractive bus links; it also has a good catchment area of terraced and semi-detached houses within five to ten minutes walk. Furthermore, Denton’s pool sees use from residents in East Manchester (next nearest pools, Medlock Leisure Centre or The Aquatics Centre, Chorlton-on-Medlock).
- Bus station less than five minutes walk;
- TfGM Cycle Hub outside main entrance;
- Railway and tram stations within ten minutes walk.
- Good catchment area with surrounding houses;
- Regular buses to Denton from Manchester city centre, Hyde, Haughton Green and Ashton-under-Lyne;
- Closest swimming baths in Tameside to a motorway.
- Excellent catchment area with surrounding houses and local schools;
- 41, 346 and 389 buses within 10 minutes walk to baths. 343 bus service stops outside baths;
- Most spacious – and free – off-street car parking facilities.
Supposing the three swimming pools will close in 2020, the future of Tameside’s leisure facilities would see the Tameside Wellness Centre in a central position between Ashton-under-Lyne, Denton and Dukinfield. The letters pages of the digital edition of the Tameside Reporter would see people rueing the loss of their facilities. On the other hand, Hydonians may be happy to see the return of proper swimming lanes after a 40 year hiatus.
As part of the rationalisation plans, the people of Hyde could see the return of ‘serious swimming’, bridging a 40 or so year gap since the Union Street baths were demolished. To compensate the loss of three pools, the present Tameside Leisure Pool will be extended to accommodate a six lane 25m swimming pool.
What we could be about to lose is 12 lanes, given that Ashton, Denton and Dukinfield pools total 18 lanes. With incumbent swimming teams trying to vie for space with non-competitive swimmers, Walker Lane could be pretty busy, much to chagrin of residents and football fans when Hyde United are at home nearby. There is also no plans for a dedicated toddlers’ pool.
Whereas the three affected pools have good bus connections, Tameside Leisure Pool’s public transport connections are less effective. Though the 201 and 387 bus services stop at the junction of Mottram New Road and Lumn Road (seven buses per hour near The Sportsman public house), the bus services along Walker Lane are half hourly (341 and 342 – and no evening journeys). How do we if either the 341 and/or the 342 buses are withdrawn by 2020 due to departmental cuts at TfGM?
Some of these issues could be mitigated by adding the 341 service onto the 346 route from Ashton to Hyde. This could allow for straight connections with Walker Lane from Dukinfield. Journeys of the 206 from Denton and Haughton Green could be rerouted via Lumn Road before terminating at Gee Cross as at present.
Tameside Wellness Centre
In the consultation document, it proposes that the Tameside Wellness Centre should be suitably placed not only for the people of Ashton, Denton and Dukinfield, but also the rest of Tameside. It also states that a separate consultation concerning its construction will be released.
The ideal place for the Tameside Wellness Centre is Dukinfield.
Why Dukinfield may you ask? The most obvious reason is the town’s geographical position in Tameside: the geographical centre of the borough. Which is also why Dukinfield Town Hall is a temporary home for Tameside MBC’s constitutional base whilst TAC’s forerunner is being built.
The most obvious place for the Tameside Wellness Centre in Dukinfield could be the site of the present swimming baths. I propose a less obvious site which has better bus connections and high pedestrian footfall: Clarendon Fields. Though the Tameside Wellness Centre could take up one football pitch, the site of the baths could be a good base for an extra pitch on the Blocksages playing fields.
Changing rooms could be improved; furthermore, this move could give Dukinfield Town Football Club a proper entrance and space for the minimum requirements of competing in Northern Premier League football (or more realistically, the North West Counties League).
If Tameside Wellness Centre is built on Clarendon Fields, pedestrian access could be gained from Astley Street and Clarendon Street at both ends, and the bottom part of Chapel Street. From Astley Street, the 335 and 345 could stop nearby. Its westerly entrance could be handy for healthy living programmes for people who work on Tameside Park Industrial Estate. As well as the 335 and 345 (from Ashton and Denton), the 330 could offer excellent connections with Hyde and Ashton. The 41 could continue to serve residents from the top end of Dukinfield to the new base.
In previous plans for a similar development, one proposed site was Cemetery Road, Audenshaw. Though this was fairly convenient for Dentonians and Ashtonians, courtesy of the 335, 345 and 347 buses, Dukinfeldian bus users would have lost out more. Shortly after the plans were announced, the one bus which connected Audenshavians with Dukinfield and Stalybridge (the 408 to Droylsden; previously the 217/218 services from Shudehill Interchange) was withdrawn. As for the people of Longdendale and wider benefits for the rest of Tameside, an awkward bus trip for many of us.
Wherever the new centre may be built, its central position should be a huge factor. Apart from the fact it could replace three swimming pools, I think Tameside Wellness Centre as a name has slightly Orwellian overtones. A change of nomenclature could be more user friendly as ‘Wellness Centre’ suggests medicinal leanings, behavioural change strategies, and the whole of Barlow Road coerced into Dry January on pain of DWP sanctions for non-compliance.
To take on any of the three pools as a community run concern could be a massive undertaking. Firstly, the amount of money bringing any of the pools up to modern standards. Secondly, the repair works required for medium to long term use. Whereas the likes of Withington and Victoria Baths were clearly built to last, and over-budget on completion, the design life of more modern buildings is perhaps less so.
All three may have asbestos issues to contend with given their age. Then there’s the issue of time pressures and local economies being able to ensure its survival, and the need for external backers. Ashton’s pool could be sitting on prime retail space; Denton’s and Dukinfield’s, potentially low rise flats or semi-detached housing. As well as the running costs, the possible scope for property developers could see a permanent loss of future community facilities.
Could the Withington Baths model be suitable for William Andrew Swimming Baths? In Spring 2013, the baths on Burton Road, Withington, had similar challenges to the one faced by Ashton, Denton and Dukinfield today. Manchester City Council planned to close the baths, with its replacement being a new sports centre at Hough End. A Friends of Withington Baths group was set up. Two years on, they took over management of the Edwardian pool and aim to refurbish it.
A refurbished William Andrew Swimming Baths could see the Dukinfield Sauna end become a café with focus on healthy eating (though they could sell bacon butties to placate Sunday league footballers after the game). The café could be open outside of baths opening hours providing an additional revenue stream. Wherewithal permitting, scope for the people of Dukinfield to wrest back what was left to them in the early to mid 1960s.
East of the M60 Comment: A Case of Swim, Sink or Sink Faster
Ever since the golden age of municipal government, the swimming baths was provided as a public service from the start. The profit motive never reared its ugly head till the Thatcher era. This has seen community facilities being forced into becoming separate trusts or sold off to private sector bodies. Cuts to local government funding has exacerbated this, meaning major centres being deprived of a local pool.
Before bathrooms were standard in dwellings, the public baths had two other purposes. One being the washhouse for your laundry, and the other being the place where you could have a bath. That’s as well as the main features of leisure and competitive sport. There was also a sense of community. There still is, either among the counter staff, or the much feared swimming instructor. Or the university graduate who left home yet has fond memories of The Wally Walrus Club from their formative years.
If you look at the figures in the consultation, much emphasis is made on the running costs rather than the community value. All three pools detailed in this report have healthy local support and, for most residents, within ten minutes walk from home. In many cases, a quick cycle or bus ride away. Ask me this: how much is a trip to the public baths compared with a gym subscription?
Should the two-thirds cut in swimming lanes be implemented – as per proposals to add a new pool in Hyde – we could see a few disappointed faces and long queues. Wellness Centre or otherwise, extra travelling would be a disincentive towards participating in physical activity.
Ultimately, we would like to see all three facilities retained within the borough. It also makes environmental sense to encourage citizens to walk a short distance to their local baths rather than drive to one in the dead centre of any locality.
The problem is particularly galling for both our borough’s residents and Tameside MBC. On Friday 08 May, the borough’s 210,000 citizens woke up to another five years of Cameron, Osborne, May, Duncan-Smith et al. In all three of the borough’s constituencies, the Labour vote increased, but it counted for nothing. Instead, the cuts we are about to receive could see the borough’s spending power cut even further.
The cuts are very much “A Product of Whitehall”. Instead of turning their guns to Westminster, some of the populace will blame the councillors. Which plays into the hands of our fellows on the government benches, absolving them of the blame.
The truth is, the poorer areas which need greater public sector spending are getting the most swingeing cuts from Westminster. True from 2010 onwards, also true under Thatcher and Major. The problem is, by 2020, most of the family silver may have been sold off.
Unless there’s a way of saving one of the three pools – let alone all three of them – there’s going to be a lot more losers than winners.
The consultation regarding the three swimming pools is open till the 11 February 2016. To participate in this, click the link seen below:
S.V., 04 January 2016.