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Sink or swim: Ireland's public swimming pools need a lifeline - here's why

The ebb and flow of government funding is the core problem facing public pools.

Image: DPA/PA Images

CLOSED FACILITIES, LIMITED hours and a lack of investment – some of the complaints people have about swimming pools in Ireland. 

Yet behind the scenes, it’s often hard to decipher who is to blame. With a complex web of funding streams and no clear responsibility for building swimming infrastructure, the sector often appears to fall between the cracks of cash-strapped local councils and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. 

Across the country, the same stories are heard over and over again – of local pools closing, followed by protracted (and sometimes successful) campaigns to re-open them.

Others argue that there are enough pools – but issues like cost, staffing and demand make keeping them open difficult. 

Swimming is widely recognised as a sport that appeals to all ages and abilities – it’s one of the characteristics of the sport praised by the government in the National Sports Strategy. 

Most of all, it’s popular – a 2013 study found that 230,000 adults swim each week.

In Dublin, some council-run pools, such as Coolock and Sean McDermott Street, only open to the public for brief windows every week, while Markievicz Leisure Centre could face demolition under plans for the new MetroLink. 

And with Dublin City Council set to spend €22m on the creation of a white-water rafting attraction at George’s Dock in the IFSC, questions have been raised about why some of this money can’t be used to improve local swimming facilities in the capital. 

Local councillors protest that it’s not that simple – but to many it’s testament to swimming’s long-held status as something of a forgotten sport in Ireland.

The Local Authority Swimming Pool Programme, through which the government provides funding to councils to invest in swimming facilities, has provided something of a lifeline to council-run pools for two decades – but the number of public pools in Ireland has remained static in the meantime at around 100 . 

Funding from the scheme has also dropped significantly, from €27.8m in 2007 to only €4.2m in 2019 – scarcely enough to build a single pool. 

One reason for this could simply be the most obvious one – pools are expensive and councils are worried about making them commercially viable. 

“Nobody expects libraries to make money. But pools are expected to make money,” says Mary McMorrow from Swim Ireland, the national governing body for swimming. “But pools shouldn’t necessarily be expected to make money.”

For the last decade, the story has been one of refurbishment and upgrades – with very few new pools built by councils under the scheme. 

Even where pools are open, the public often only have a brief window for which to use them – funding limitations too often mean that use is often restricted to schools and lessons. 

The debacle over the Clontarf Baths, which was redeveloped but now remains largely off limits to the general public, has left many questioning where priorities lie when it comes to water-based sport. 

Yet Dublin Labour councillor Dermot Lacey says that local councils’ hands are tied when it comes to building more pools. 

“We don’t really have an independent source of financing,” he says. Most pools in use today, says Lacey, were built at a time when local councils had more discretionary funding. 

pool protest 424 The closure of pools are often emotive issues. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Now, any funding given is “constrained by central government for the purpose for which it is given”. 

“Money is allocated in silos – just for that purpose, just for that purpose,” he adds. 

In the 1990s, spending on pools declined. In 1992, only €0.3 million was given to councils to spend on pool infrastructure. By 1999, it had risen – but only to €5.7 million. 

By 2007, the number of people per public pool was 58,000. In 2011, the target was to lower that to one public pool per 50,000.

The figure today? The Department of Sport didn’t have the exact figure when contacted by TheJournal.ie - but there are around 100 public pools in Ireland today, putting the figure at around one pool per 48,000 people. 

“It can be seen that the Exchequer amounts made available up to 1998, averaged little over the total eligible cost of one swimming pool per year in those years,” a Department of Arts, Tourism and Sport policy review from the start of the decade notes. 

“Where pools were built in the 1990s this seems to have occurred in an ad hoc manner, due to the pressure, persistence and persuasiveness of local interests. The amount of Exchequer funding being provided annually was equivalent to one new pool a year and therefore marked no substantive provision for refurbishment or increase in public pool stock”, the same report notes. 

Availability

The latest figures from the CSO indicate that just under three million people are within 5km of a swimming pool. 

However, figures vary – in Galway 55% of people lived 10km from a swimming pool, while the figure was 53% in Longford. 

With around 400 swimming pools of some variety in Ireland, the supply is there – yet questions remain over access and the location. 

One of the strange quirks of the 2008 crash was that hotels quickly became a key source of pools for many people. Today, 50% of Irish pools are in the hotel sector – a product of financial necessity as businesses were forced open up membership to the public to raise funds. 

But one problem for Swim Ireland, says Mary McMorrow, is the distance of pools from schools – on one scheme for DEIS schools run by the organisation, 50% of the costs came from transport to and from pools. 

Signs of change?

Plans for a national swim strategy – an unprecedented focus on the sport – could help to drastically improve the sector says Conn McCluskey, the Chief Executive of Ireland Active, an umbrella body for the leisure industry. 

“There is adequate swimming pool provision in many areas,” he argues. “But there are pockets that need a pool.”

Where those pockets are remains somewhat hard to decipher, with significant questions over cost, opening hours and whether the pool is in public or private hands. 

“The difficulty in building a swimming pool is that the construction and operating costs are largely the same whether they are in Leitrim or Dublin, however the populations are vastly different,” he says – making the cost of developing a pool or leisure centre dependent on the potential customer base. 

“The development of the National Swimming Strategy will provide some of the answers to whether we have adequate provision,” says McCluskey. “Without the data, industry information and a strategic approach, it is difficult to answer.”

McMorrow thinks things are changing for the better. “There is a receptive ear,” she says of the government – which seems to be slowly paying attention after years of Swim Ireland jockeying for position alongside GAA, rugby and soccer. 

The National Sports Strategy for 2018-2027 focuses heavily on swimming, which has started to benefit from the newly created Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund. 

Only last Friday, several million euros was allocated to upgrade swimming facilities across the country with money from this fund, which also provided €15 million to build a new swimming pool in Galway city with capabilities for sports like water polo. 

Nonetheless, it’ll still take years to determine whether the tide can be turned when it comes to challenges facing public swimming pools. 

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