Wirksworth Swimming Pool, Derbyshire

  • Learner pool
  • Ownership and management of the pool transferred to a newly established trust in 2012 from Derbyshire Dales District Council
  • Transfer supported by agencies; Rural Action Derbyshire and Derbyshire Dales Council for Voluntary Service; who conducted a feasibility study, prepared a draft business plan, researched alternative legal structures and developed volunteers

1. Description before transfer

The Wirksworth Swimming Pool (originally called Wirksworth Learner Pool) is a 10m by 5m pool situated close to Wirksworth sports centre and associated pitches, and close to a school. It is a stand-alone facility with a small plant room and two changing rooms. A trust fund was established for the provision of the pool in 1974, into which Wirksworth Urban District Council invested £28,000. As part of local government reorganisation West Derbyshire District Council engrossed the responsibility of the trust for the learner pool and as the sole trustee used the funds to build the pool in 1982. When West Derbyshire District Council became Derbyshire Dales District Council, (DDDC) this responsibility for the trust was incorporated. As a consequence; DDDC, acting as the sole trustee of the Wirksworth learner pool charity, managed the lease and the building. At the same time, in their capacity as the local authority; DDDC also managed the services within the pool; such as life guarding and swimming lessons. The land the pool is on is leased from the Anthony Gell Foundation. 

Thus the arrangement between the trust, DDDC and the foundation owning the land was a consequence of the particular historical circumstances.

The pool manager was also responsible for a much larger adjacent sports centre. Prior to transfer of the pool, users had to buy tickets from the adjacent centre, 200 meters away. This was inconvenient, and it was possible for users to buy a ticket and then find the pool was full.

Wirksworth is a small historic town in North Derbyshire with a population of over 5,000. It has several historically important buildings. For example, Sir Anthony Gell founded the local school in 1546 and this is significant because of the Anthony Gell Foundation’s ownership of the land the pool is on. Its population is not especially affluent, but is stable, and the area has attracted independent artists. The stability of the population and the history of the pools meant that many local residents had learnt to swim there, and so had their children. Thus it had a high profile and was a much valued local facility.

2. The catalyst for a transfer

The catalyst for transfer to volunteer ownership was DDDC plans to reduce pool capacity in the local authority to save revenue. Other DDDC pools are at Bakewell and Ashbourne and there is another pool at Belper in the neighbouring district of Amber Valley. All three of these pools remain open in 2014.

3. The process of asset transfer

In 2009 the Anthony Gell Foundation and DDDC commissioned Rural Action Derbyshire (RAD) and Derbyshire Dales Council for Voluntary Service (DDCVS) to write a report about the future of the pool to review if an asset transfer was feasible.

RAD and DDCVS were committed to community development and volunteering. They instigated a set of public consultations to involve the local community. Attendees gave their names and addresses which the volunteer support agencies could use as a mailing list to keep local residents informed of developments and from which the final group of trustees could emerge. These consultations were the catalyst for a local group to form around a desire to retain the pool. Such enthusiasm and commitment was generated that at the final meeting when trustees were asked for, all present volunteered, bar one who was too ill at the time.

The fees paid to RAD and the CVS were not enough to cover the work involved in preparing the report on the feasibility of asset transfer; including the alternative legal identities; a business plan and the succession of public consultations which developed volunteer capacity. However, they were able to cover the work from their other funding – as this was within the remit of their work and approved by their trustees. Both organisations are committed to community development and volunteering.

This meant that once community consultations had progressed over a period of two years to the point at which volunteers were required to come forward as trustees, a viable business plan and legal identity could be presented to them. They could be confident that the pool was financially viable and they were protected within the legal structure. This was very important as the volunteers were completely new to managing a swimming pool. The energy and enthusiasm of volunteers might have been strained by the requirement to do the work to get to this stage without support. The support agencies had to help the group change from one campaigning to keep the pool open to one who would take responsibility for managing it.

The local community were involved as much as possible in every aspect – for example, the pool logo was designed by a local child. In April 2012 the pool passed into community management as a charity and a company limited by guarantee.

The pool had a high local political profile, so local councillors were keen to see it remain. The facility did become a ‘political football’ between the town council [Labour] who wanted it to remain a District Council responsibility and the District council [Conservative] who wanted to explore community ownership. A further complication was that if the pool was
shown to be viable it might reflect negatively on the pre-transfer local leisure centre manager.

DDDC were able to redeploy staff to other facilities, under TUPE. This was critical as the pool could not be a viable business if it had to pay the local authority wages and take on responsibility for the pension scheme contributions.

The required schedule of capital work costing £103,500 was agreed with DDDC and carried out by DDDC before handover. Further improvements; including improving the painting and tiles to improve the appearance of the pool have been carried out by the charity through a mixture of grants and fundraising. The new trustees also took part in a television programme which encouraged local people and businesses to help improve the local facility and some improvements resulted – for example a buggy shelter was constructed.

4. The role of volunteers after transfer

Seven volunteers became trustees. One of the original trustees has had to reduce involvement due to personal circumstances and; in December 2014; the trust is seeking to appoint three more. Volunteers included a head teacher who became the chair, and had considerable respect in the local community; a person with a financial management background who became treasurer; a surveyor; a town councillor and a marketing professional. Thus they had a pool of skills to bring. Most were parents of children who used the pool or pool users themselves. The CEO of Rural Action Derbyshire, who lived locally, also became a trustee; inspired by the commitment and skills of the other trustees.

The day-to-day operation of the pool is carried out by paid staff led by a pool manager (a qualified and experienced swimming tutor). The volunteer trustees are responsible for the governance, policy, strategic direction and fund raising – although staff also get involved in this aspect of the work. The number of staff at the pool is increasing as the pool extends its opening hours and trains apprentice swimming teachers – there are currently 8 staff in total – all part time.

A new group of volunteers, called Friends of Wirksworth Pool, has recently been established. They are working with the staff and trustees on local fund raising initiatives. They are mostly parents of children using the pool and they have a say in how the funds they raise are spent.

5. Changes in the pool – post transfer

Costs were reduced, partly by replacing local authority staff who are expensive because of high on-costs, such as pension contributions, and also by shopping around for better deals for energy and other consumables.
Revenue was increased by a careful examination of prices, which had not previously been done. Prices for swimming lessons increased and this is the aspect of the pool which is the main contributor to profit. More swimming lesson sessions are now provided which increases the pool income. Activities such as kids’ parties were previously being run at a loss – and this was corrected. The profit and loss making activities could not be accurately identified under the previous budgeting.

The new management was more market and community oriented. It had a greater incentive to seek new profitable opportunities but was also more in touch with what the local community wanted. The trustees and the stronger links with the local community are a very effective marketing information system.

The new manager worked closely with the trustees to allow them to develop their understanding of the technical details of pool management. A swimming instructor was retained who had a very good reputation – thus ensuring the popularity of the swimming lessons.

The interior décor of the pool was quickly refurbished to make it more attractive. The next stage will be to redevelop the changing facilities, which at present offer little privacy.
Further improvements have been carried out by the charity through a mixture of grants and fundraising. It was important to establish the pools own ticket office next to the pool –temporarily housed in a porta cabin – so users could buy tickets at the pool, rather than some distance away at the leisure centre.

6. The additional contribution of volunteers

  • The trustees bring the perspective of being users of the pool. They are a very effective marketing information system – being sensitive to local needs.
  • The focus of the new trust is entirely on this pool, in contrast to the pool being a minor part of the much larger leisure centre, or part of the facilities owned and managed by DDDC.
  • There is greater community engagement. The programme has developed to meet the needs of a broader range of the community. Engagement of the local community is critical to maintain the profile of the pool as a community asset.
  • Volunteers bring local contacts and networks; for example, maintenance work can be easily arranged through local contractors.
  • Trustees bring additional specialist input – such as marketing and web site management.
  • A diverse team of volunteers has worked well as a team. They meet at least twice a month.

7. Important success factors

  • Wirksworth community – the stability of the local community in which there was a strong network of personal relationships characterised by trust enabled volunteers to be developed. This would be much more difficult in an area with an unstable population and low social capital. .
  • The community had an emotional attachment to the pool through generations of use.
  • Political & practical support. DDDC and the Antony Gell Foundation supported asset transfer and paid for the initial feasibility plan and further support from the volunteer development agencies. These agencies themselves committed resources.
  • There were no TUPE issues as DDDC was able to redeploy existing staff.
  • 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.
  • Key Staff – the new pool manager willingly shared his expertise with the trustees and the main swimming instructor had a very good reputation with parents.
  • Communication with the community, via the support agencies, through the process of transfer, meant everybody knew what was happening to the pool.
  • Prospective volunteers were not expected to commit to taking responsibility at the start but were fully informed of the process, such as when trustees were required they had a completely free choice to opt in. Thus volunteers could be developed from a campaigning to a delivery organisation over the period 2009 – 2012. They still needed confidence and belief that they could run a pool to be developed.

Official website



Geoff Nichols: University of Sheffield
Deborah Forbes: University of Newcastle
Lindsay Findlay-King and Gordon Macfadyen: University of Northumbria

©2015 The University of Sheffield