Scrutinising swimming pool facilities

I’ve been a bit annoyed with the provision of swimming facilities here in Brum for a while. Nick Booth suggested I compare them with those of the other core cities to see how Birmingham rated. So I’ve just had a little go.

What I did

First I went to each council’s website, found its list of leisure facilities and then checked each one to work out which were swimming pools. Occasionally, in the case of Manchester, that was easy because it was quite handy. In other cases it was a pain, because the council had different ideas about presentation. Anyway, I managed to make a crude tally of the number of pool facilities.

I wanted to do more, but as this spreadsheet shows it’s hard to get all the data.

Newcastle Swimming Pools

Some councils provide more information than others, some are completely inconsistent about what they do present. You’ll also see that, scandalously, I’ve added some Scottish cities and left out the likes of Sheffield in my list.

I then had a look on the same sites for population statistics. I didn’t always find them. On some occasions the website provided a mid-2008 census estimate, and sometimes it was just the numbers from the 2001 census. Sometimes it was in a nice HTML format, and other times it was buried in a PDF.

What I produced

I managed to collate the information into this incredibly crude spreadsheet, where I divided the population of the city by the number of pool facilities.

Swimming pool comparison

I then used Many Eyes to upload my spreadsheet and turn it into a visualisation, which you can see here:-

Now, this isn’t a great analysis. After all, Birmingham has Moseley Road Baths, which is something like 20m long, while the Manchester Aquatics Centre has two 50m pools in one facility. Yet they each get a score of one. Deeply unfair. If I could find out how long and how wide each pool was then I could add it all up and then compare the total swimming area to population. But that depth (pun intended) of information isn’t available.

So what does this mean?
For me this is a scrutiny issue, because working out how Birmingham compares to other cities in terms of facilities helps us to understand whether it needs to improve. But the information isn’t there, or if it is it’s inconsistent. And it’s not just geeks who’d like to know how big a swimming pool is, how long it’s open for and even how warm it is. It’s all information that’s relevant to users.

What can be done?
Making comparisons between councils’ services would be made easier if we all were engaged in a discussion about what information needs to be made available and in what formats that information is presented in.

As this little experiment demonstrates, it’s not technically challenging to collect data and then use a free, web-based tool like Many Eyes to interpret it. And, for the time being, I’m considering setting up a site that looks specifically at swimming pools to work out how that process could become more useful and accurate.


  1. Excellent idea Andy, although I have to wish you luck.

    Friends of Moseley Road Baths have been trying to get accurate information for years with little success. In terms of the cost per swim, the number of users, the income and the subsidy, report after report is opaque to say the least. And these are reports that local taxpayers have paid for.

    I’ll have a chat with Philippa from our group who is the person with the patience to pore over these figures and ask the right questions… though off the top of my head the Melville Report is worth looking at. Also, Mullaney announced his plan to ‘revolutionise swimming’ in the city last night. I wasn’t at the meeting so haven’t heard these exciting new plans yet, but expect an article on The Stirrer later today…

  2. Oh, as an aside, it may also be worth looking at which of the pools are currently open and to whom. Some local pools are for kids’ lessons only, others are closed or facing refurb or rebuild. It seems even our local PPCs can’t get a grip on this – apparently the Tories put out a leaflet stating that Moseley Road Baths was closed!

  3. rod read says:

    if you worked out the total lane length each county had instead of the number of swimming pools….
    you could then work the swim distance allocated to each tax payer.
    probably not getting much more than a strokes worth each per year.

  4. Hi. I work for the Audit Commission and there’s a couple of things that we have made available that you may find useful.

    We have put together a VFM profiling tool for each council in England. This enables you to compare any council against a range of comparator groups including the core cities. You can get to the tool from the front page of our web site via a link on the right hand side of the page.

    You can also have a look at how partners are doing on the big issues in the city at the Oneplace web site – There is some commentary under the city’s Be healthy priority about pools including the recently launched BeActive scheme.

    Hope this helps.

    Michael Newbury
    Area Assessment Lead – North Yorkshire and York

  5. John Heaven says:

    Hi Andrew. A bit of a late reaction, but I was looking for swimming pools here in Hamburg the other day and thought of your post.

    i) In case it’s of any use, there are 26 public swimming facilities here according to the local authority’s website. “Public” in the sense that they are open to the public, but I think they’re owned by a private company. The population in Hamburg is 1.7m.

    ii) When I worked at Birmingham City Council, I worked on a project that organised reciprocal visits exchange visits between Birmingham and Sweden for people involved in sport. The idea was that they compare, exchange best practice etc.. It’s an established link, and could also be useful for international comparisons. Nick met Stuart Daniels, my then boss who runs the project; I could put you in touch if you like.

    iii) A lady from the local government in Berlin (who is incidentally an international rowing judge) did an EU-funded secondment at BCC. She works in sport in Berlin — again, she could be a useful contact for international comparisons.

    Let me know if any of this is useful! Regards!

  6. Andrew Brightwell says:

    That’s all very useful and, yes, they’d both be great people to talk to.

    Thanks very much for your help!

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