Case study: Bramley Baths, Leeds
- A small swimming pool and leisure centre located on the outskirts of Leeds and built in 1904.
- Used by local residents and schools for swimming lessons.
- Opening hours reduced in September 2011 as part of a spending review by Leeds City Council.
- Local community group established to support the pool in February 2011 and re-opened in January 2013 as an Industrial Provident Society on a 25 year lease from the Council.
1. Description before transfer
Bramley Baths and leisure centre is located on the outskirts of Leeds. It is used by local residents and schools for swimming lessons. The schools are in walking distance of the baths.
It was built in 1904 and is a Grade II listed building and the swimming pool was included in the listing. Therefore if the Baths were to close, the pool would not be able to change use.
It retains many original features, such as changing cubicles surrounding the pool and a Russian steam bath. It includes a gym Some restoration work was done in the 1980’s. The pool has a local catchment area. Two other public swimming pools are within 1.5 miles and another one is within easy travelling distance. All these facilities are more modern. The Bramley pool had a relatively high subsidy.
2. The catalyst for a transfer
In September 2011 Leeds City Council proposed to reduce the hours the pool was open from 95 to 49 as part of a spending review. At the same time two other leisure centres in Leeds were closed, the hours were sharply reduced at another two, and another pool was closed. So the reduction of hours at Bramley Baths was part of a general reduction of direct provision of leisure services.
3. The process of asset transfer
A local community group became established to support the pool in February 2011 because they thought closure was a possibility. They finalised a business plan in May 2012, took over managing the baths under a 25 year lease from the council in December 2012, and re-opened it in January 2013.
The group was supported by the local MP, councillors and two existing voluntary organisations; Barca Leeds (a voluntary agency) and Bramley Elderly Action. The group also invited the local schools to join.
At the first public meeting about the pool closure there were around 30-40 volunteers who expressed interest in helping to transfer the Baths to a community run asset. As the amount of work required became apparent these were reduced to a steering group of ten who were able to make the considerable commitment of time it quickly became apparent was required to prepare for transfer. All these volunteers also had full-time jobs. The other interested volunteers then became the Friends of Bramley Baths. There is an overlap of membership between the steering group, which became the board of the transferred baths, and the friends group.
The role of the steering group before the transfer was to develop the business plan for the Baths. Members of this group had considerable skills and experience. One had managed pubs and presently worked for a charity financing social enterprises. She wrote the initial expression of interest to the council in August 2011 and then developed the business plan, which took until May 2012 to complete. It was refined several times with the advice of council officers. A leading group member was the former MP for Leeds West, who had considerable experience of working with local politicians, officer of the council and voluntary groups. Another worked in marketing. The combination of skills, experience and commitment in the steering group was essential however they did not have experience of pool management.
Good relations with council officers and politicians were a considerable help. Council officers provided valuable advice on the business plan as it developed. The volunteers nominated the asset transfer manager of Leeds Council for a local authority good practice award, which he won. The advice from the council officers is despite the pool being a rival to the other ones in close proximity, which are still council run.
The existing council staff were redeployed within the council within TUPE regulations. It would not have been possible for the pool to continue to employ the same staff on the same conditions and pension obligations.
The pool secured a loan of £50,000 from Keyfund, a social investment financier, to help with cash flow; however this has not been required and £20,000 was paid back in January 2014. The council sold all the equipment in the pool to the community group at a depreciated value of 80%, so the total cost of this; £25,000; is being paid back over 5 years. Once the proposed business plan had been approved in May 2012 there was 6 months until the volunteer led organisation took over the facility at the end of December. It was closed for two weeks, leading to a highly publicised opening under the new community management in January 2013. An extended period of closure during transfer to the new management was avioded. The volunteers found the 6 months between the council approving the business plan and the asset being transferred quite a short period in which to employ staff and make all the other arrangements to run the pool. Agreeing the terms of the lease took longer than expected.
4. The role of volunteers after transfer
Following transfer the volunteer steering group oversee the running of the baths and have sub-committees on finance and human resources to help them do so. Volunteers also run the friends group which raises funds and helps at events. Paid staff include: a Chief Executive, an operations manager, 5 receptionists, 2 gym instructors, 6 swimming instructors and 8 lifeguards. One council employee, who was a particularly respected swimming instructor, took early retirement and moved to the transferred pool.
5. Changes in the pool – post transfer
Post-transfer the pool’s opening hours have been increased to 60 hours per week. The pool have retained some popular events and run new ones. The local schools continue to use the pool, which has an advantage of children being able to walk to the pool, which is more healthy and cheaper. Prior to transfer the council had linked the pool to an arts festival, putting an orchestra in the centre of the pool and hosting an underwater arts exhibition. Post-transfer a series of films have been projected in the pool, which can be watched while swimming. A group of ‘mermaids’ have provided synchronised swimming demonstrations. Leeds Naturist Society use the pool and gym for two hours on Friday evenings. Circus skills sessions are run for kids. A gardening group have taken over the cultivatable grounds and are producing their own vegetables. A conservatory is being planned to use as a café. New items are continually being added to the programme, such as a parents and adult swimming race, in order to keep a high community profile. Marketing has been developed, including leaflets promoting the pool delivered to all local households. Prices have undercut the adjoining council run pools.
The pool made a substantial, larger than projected; surplus in the first year of operating, and slightly less in the first 6 months of the second year. As in all pools, attendance numbers are related to the weather. No revenue subsidy is provided by the council – although one could argue that the loss of swimming demand at the neighbouring council pools is a form of indirect subsidy. If the council were to close one of the neighbouring pools demand would divert to Bramley.
6. The additional contribution of volunteers
- Skills and enthusiasm
- Developing use by new groups
- Developing the range of services offered, such as the garden and café, and film swims
- Innovations in marketing the pool
- Maintaining the pool, extending opening hours and retaining its use by local school children who can walk to it.
7. Important success factors
- A pool of local volunteers with key skills and enthusiasm.
- A leading volunteer with local political experience and networks, facilitating a positive relationship between council officers, politicians and the community group.
- Political & practical support from officers and politicians.
- The community had an emotional attachment to the pool which is an iconic building.
- Local authority staff could be redeployed.
- The pool had an early physical upgrade.
- The trustees brought a package of skills, confidence and belief they could make a difference. The range of skills, such as marketing, accounting and building maintenance, were all valuable. In addition the trustees had a high reputation in the community.
A threat to sustainability could be if a large capital expenditure could not be met, such as a boiler needing replacing. During transfer the council gave a verbal indication that they might help with this type of cost in the first two years, but this has not been formalised.
The success of the pool and the higher profile in the local community will be important in attracting new volunteers.
Geoff Nichols: University of Sheffield
Deborah Forbes: University of Newcastle
Lindsay Findlay-King and Gordon Macfadyen: University of Northumbria
©2015 The University of Sheffield