Tadcaster Community Swimming Pool

Case study

1. The facility

  • Opened in 1994
  • A 25m x 13m deck-level main pool
  • A 12m x 7m deck-level teaching pool
  • 16-station fitness suite
  • Single-sex changing rooms
  • Social area, also used for activities and meetings
  • Home to Tadcaster Swim Squad, Lower Wharfe Canoe Club, and T3 Triathlon Club

 

2. Background

Tadcaster is a market town of approximately 7,000 inhabitants, on the River Wharfe in North Yorkshire.

The town’s local authority is Selby District Council. In 1992, the people of Tadcaster identified that a swimming pool and leisure provision was a key priority. However, the local authority built a pool in the District town of Selby, about 15 miles from Tadcaster. In light of this development, a community group (consisting of the head teacher of the local secondary school, a local GP, and others) formed a small trustee board and began the process of locating land, materials, and finance in order to build its own facility.

A key factor in making progress was the support a local landowner, who donated the land and a substantial amount of materials, cash and access to experts (such as architects, stone masons and the like), and in December 1994 Tadcaster Community Swimming Pool was opened. From the outset, the facility has operated as a charitable organisation, under the oversight of a board of trustees, and hence is different to other facilities in our series of case studies, many of which have started life under local authority ownership, management and operation, and have subsequently been transferred to volunteer-led originations.

Although in Selby District, Tadcaster is in close proximity to three other authorities – Harrogate, York and Leeds – and the pool’s records indicate that its customer base is drawn from all three districts, with users coming from an area prescribed by a 10-mile radius from the pool.

The facility is owned and managed by Tadcaster Swimming Pool Trust, a board of (currently seven) voluntary trustees. In 2004, having previously operated as a trust, and following advice from a new trustee, the organisation changed its legal status to that of private limited company (a charitable company limited by guarantee), and, as such, is registered with both The Charity Commission and Companies House. There are 14 full-time staff (including the Facility Manager), 10 part-time swimming instructors, and approximately 130 volunteers who contribute to the day-to-day operating of the facility.

 

3. The role of volunteers

Many volunteers take on what might be thought of as more generalist roles, such as lifeguarding, reception, facility maintenance and gardening. Those who volunteer as lifeguards are given full and free National Pool Lifeguard training and qualifications, in return for 50 hours of volunteering. They and others are also given training in areas such as First Aid, reception, health and safety, IT systems, and maintenance. Volunteers are given free or discounted access to the facility in return for their support.

Facility maintenance volunteers do a whole range of small remedial tasks (e.g. repairing lockers, hanging doors, fixing ceiling tiles) – anything that does not require certification.

Other volunteers contribute more specialist skills, which have included business acumen, legal advice, website design, software development (e.g. databases), health and safety advice, architecture, electrician support, and even pool-plant technical expertise.

Another key contribution from volunteers is that of fundraising, which centres around one key event each year: the Tadcaster Duck Race, in which 2,500 sponsored plastic ducks are launched into the River Wharfe!

 

4. Relationships with key agencies

As well as the original acquisition of land and building of the facility, another key incident which has defined the pool’s relationship with external agencies was a major tile failure in 2007. The failure was not covered by the Trust’s insurance, and as a result, the pool was closed for nine months, and had to raise £150,000 to pay for repairs.

Selby District Council
The private land was given to the Trust on the basis that it could only be used for the purposes of a swimming pool, and hence there is no direct link to Selby District Council (SDC). SDC contributed £25,000 towards the 2007 repairs, but provides no ongoing support of a financial or practical nature. There is a perception among those involved with the pool that some within the Council may not fully understand what the Trust does, or are not interested in its activities, or may even view with suspicion its links to the landowner.

Sport England
Sport England (SE) also contributed to the tile-failure repair work in 2007. The funding was conditional on the Trust relaying KPI information to SE for the following five years, which it did. Apart from these transactions, there has been a rather limited relationship with SE, again perhaps characterised by indifference, and maybe not helped by a number of unsuccessful bids for SE funding.

Voluntary agencies
The Trust has received support from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) which has not only provided some funding, but given advice and help with legal issues and the like. The Trust has regular contact with and advice from the Royal Life-Saving Society (RLSS) – especially in relation to its qualifications – and the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), another contributor to the 2007 repairs.

Local MP
The local MP came to visit the facility during the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat Coalition Government, and used the opportunity to highlight the facility as an example of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ ideology in action. The visit provided some publicity for the pool (as well as the MP), but there has been no ongoing or close relationship.

Local businesses
One key area of support for the pool has come from businesses in the town and local area. Such support has provided both ‘moral backing’ (“they understand more of what we’re about”) as well as practical help (including free room-hire, discounted printing, and assistance with fundraising). Support for Other Organisations As well as being ‘home’ to its own swimming club, a canoe club and a triathlon club, the pool caters for swimming lessons for seven local schools each week, and provides discounted swimming for local groups such as Guides, Brownies and Beavers.

 

5. Benefits of trust status

As with other facilities in a similar situation, having charitable status provides Tadcaster Community Swimming Pool with certain financial benefits, both in terms of income-generation and cost-savings. The capacity to generate income is helped by the Trust’s ability to be ‘nimble on its feet’, to react quickly to trends or developments in the industry, and to tailor its services to particular needs within the town. Ideas do not need to be approved by heads of departments or council committees, and hence decisions can be made promptly, and new income streams created in response to demand. To supplement its income, the Trust can also apply for a range of donations and grants to which it would otherwise not have access. In relation to costs, the key savings are from business rates relief and partial VAT exemption.

However, there are some financial disadvantages to the facility’s private limited company/charitable status. First, the Trust does not possess the bulk-buying-power that it would have if part of a local authority. Secondly, the management does not have guaranteed access to many of the specialist support functions (such as HR, payroll, IT and legal) that exist within most councils or larger organisations, and hence such support needs to be recruited or paid for. Thirdly, apart from some of the financial help received in 2007, the Board has had difficulty in applying for and securing funding from larger external agencies, and perhaps lacks the recognition or understanding that more mainstream facilities might engender.

Away from finances, there are other benefits to the pool’s model of ownership and management. From an operational perspective, again the Trust’s ‘nimbleness’ results in it being generally able to change things that are not working , and fix things that are broken in a much more timely manner. The fact that the Trustees themselves are also users, means that they see, at first hand, if there are maintenance issues, logistical problems or staffing concerns. And finally, and crucially, the volunteer-led nature of the facility gives rise to users appreciating that local people are giving up their time to “keep the facility going”, spreading the word, and hence harnessing even more local support.

 

6. Important success factors

Philosophy/ethos
As has been mentioned, Tadcaster Community Swimming Pool was never a public sector facility, but rather came into being as a community-owned and community-run project. It is clear that this volunteer-led mind-set was central and vital to the advent of the facility, and has been preserved by the trustees and others throughout the 20+ years of its existence to date. There is an evident ‘can do’ mentality among those in leadership.

Building design
The design and appearance of the facility are also seen as key strengths. From its barn-like front (of local stone) to its more modern interior, the facility is both striking and functional, and has won architectural awards along with attracting many users.

Key people
Much of the success of the pool is attributed to the vision, determination and skills of the original trustees. As well as acquiring the land and materials to build the facility, the Board took the crucial step of head-hunting its first Facility Manager from the South of England – someone with the necessary knowledge and experience of recruiting and managing volunteers – who played a key role in establishing the structure, systems and culture of the organisation. The Board was led for 18 years by its first Chairman, who, along with many other key duties, provided important liaison between the Trust and the landowner, and was instrumental in achieving much of its vital support. Finally, other key people have been those volunteers with specialist expertise. A good example of the fruit of such expertise is the facility’s purpose-built swimming lessons database, designed by one of the volunteers. With its specificity to the pool’s layout, teaching stations and procedures, it is far more fit-for-purpose than anything else on the market.

Interchangeability of roles
The final success factor is the way in which the full-time staff have been managed to create an interchangeability of roles that has enabled the facility to operate with reduced staffing costs. Many of the staff (including the Facility Manager) are able to function as lifeguards, gym instructors, receptionists, swimming teachers, or even pool-plant technicians, and have thus been adept in providing both excellent customer service and operational flexibility and efficiency.

 

7. Main challenges

Changes to pension arrangements
The amendments under the Pensions Act of 2011, to automatic enrolment (meaning that all employers [including charities] must provide and pay into an occupational pension plan), has had a significant effect on the operating costs of the facility. For organisations with fewer than 30 employees, these changes came into effect from 1st January 2016.

Health and safety legislation
Another concern is the possibility of increasingly stringent health and safety regulations. For small organisations such as Tadcaster Swimming Pool Trust, complying with expanding legislation can be very costly, especially if it had to employ more staff in the case of volunteers not being available.

Utility costs
The government’s policies around energy-usage and carbon-emission reductions, including so-called green levies or taxes (such as the Climate Change Levy [CCL]), could lead to significant extra costs for high energy users such as swimming pools. Again, the uncertainties around the future direction and details of such policies present a substantial challenge to the Trust.

Capital costs
As illustrated by the major tile-failure in 2007, capital costs can be considerable or even crippling. The pool is now over 20 years old, and is in need of significant refurbishment in places. This prospect, allied with the difficulties that have been experienced in acquiring capital funding, gives further cause for concern for the management of the facility.

 

8. Sustainability

Nevertheless, in spite of the above challenges, the Board remains optimistic about not only the future of Tadcaster Pool, but also the potential for other facilities adopting this volunteer-led model. There is confidence that the model of recruiting and retaining volunteers is effective, and that the number of volunteers will continue to rise steadily. Similarly, for those considering comparable projects, “it’s not as easy as just handing somebody the keys and saying ‘you run the pool’” (obviously there are substantial legal, financial, employment, operational and health and safety issues), but with “the right mentality and the right qualified people” it can be done.

FIND OUT MORE: http://www.tadcasterpool.org.uk/