How to save your local lido

9 top tips from experienced campaigners on resurrecting outdoor pools

If you’re worried about the future of your local lido or you hope to reopen a closed pool, others have been where you are before and have sage advice to share. Film-maker Patrick McLennan sought out some of the success stories for their top tips on how to preserve our pools.

The national enthusiasm for outdoor swimming has turned it from a slightly peculiar pastime into a fast-growing mainstream interest of those who are embracing its multiple social, health and wellbeing benefits. Many previously occasional outdoor swimmers are staying in the lido longer and paddling later into the year. 

This was the subject of my 2019 documentary, The Ponds, while my next film, Splash Palace, is also about a very national preoccupation – the rebirth of the British lido. Michael Wood, founder of the Future Lidos advisory group, said nationally there are 23 campaigns aimed at either restoring closed lidos or building new ones, stretching from Tarlair tidal pools in Aberdeenshire to the new Sea Lanes pool in Brighton.

In my new film I’m following the progress of a variety of lido restorations and the colourful people behind them. During my research I’ve spoken to numerous lido experts, campaigners from the frontlines of district council confrontations and it struck me, first, how passionate these people are and, secondly, how much knowledge they have and can share with us, many of whom may wish to prevent our local pool from closing or perhaps even restore a long abandoned lido.

These are their top tips.

  1. Ensure you have enough local community support 

This might seem stunningly obvious but, nevertheless, it’s crucial that you have real local enthusiasm for your outdoor pool. 

Pam Barrett was a key member of the Buckfastleigh parish council takeover, a group of independents whose primary motivation was to save their endangered pool from a lethargic district council which was looking to close it in 2014.

“It was so clear to me that the outcry in the community was we can’t lose this [lido],” she said. “If there isn’t any community support, if no one wants to swim, then you may as well give up and go home.”

Mick Barry, a key member of the campaign to save Brightlingsea Lido in Essex in 2017, said laying the foundations with the local community was key to preserving it.

More than 100 people turned up to the initial public meeting about its future, he said. “We got people to sign up for potential volunteer work and to be more interested in forming a committee of people who would be interested in coming together and being part of a rescue strategy.”

The Buckfastleigh team of volunteers

“It was so clear to me that the outcry in the community was we can’t lose the lido. If there isn’t any community support, if no one wants to swim, then you may as well give up and go home.”

  1. Find out who owns the pool

Another to file under ‘bleeding obvious’, but many disused pools are so old that their provenance is as murky as the dirty water pooling in the cracked tanks.

Pam explained that Teignbridge District Council believed they owned Buckfastleigh Pool, but they were wrong. The charitable basis of the pool’s ownership hadn’t changed in 100 years, despite responsibility falling to various councils.

“That meant all the original restrictions were still there, which meant [the council] could close the pool but the only thing [they] could do with the land as any asset was use the proceeds to build another pool somewhere else in the community, so their hands were completely tied,” she said.

“I think that’s quite common in a lot of places, where counties and districts think they own assets but they don’t – they’re really charitable assets.”

Paul Simons, chair of trustees for Cleveland Pools in Bath, has a similar story to tell about the 18-year campaign to reopen Britain’s oldest public lido, which began when older residents heard Bath City Council was considering selling it to property developers. Older residents could remember learning to swim at the pools and had vivid and affectionate memories of the place.

“We were able to muster a pretty massive community response to say, ‘Hang on a minute. That’s not yours to sell, it’s our swimming pool’.”

The city council eventually agreed to let the volunteers try to formulate a plan to reopen the pools.

  1. Reach out for help from the lido community

Wherever you are on your journey, someone else has been there before and, by and large, will be happy to advise you on how to navigate the obstacles.

Pam says there are loads of expert who lido groups can call on. When the district council in 2014 said the repairs were too expensive to reopen Buckfastleigh Pool, the group turned to the chief engineer of British Swimming, who happened to be on holiday in Devon and said he’d come down and have a look at the pool. 

Pam explains that he turned up, inspected the pool and could find nothing much wrong with it. The boiler was fine, the pipes were intact and if they put a heat-sealed neoprene liner in the pool, it could reopen quickly. 

There’s a lot of professional support available to lidos, according to Chris Romer-Lee of architecture practice Studio Octopi, so go out there and make the contacts early on. Chris has been involved in many early campaigns, a number of which have gone on to raise sufficient funds to engage architects, business planners, pool specialists, planning consultants and so on. Professionals with experience in lidos can bring direction and knowledge to your team; they have often seen the pitfalls and can forewarn you of potential obstacles. 

Paul agreed: “Knowing what help you need is part of the problem. And then once you realise this, you’ve just got to go out there and ask for help and advertise it and it’s amazing, quite frankly, who and what comes out of the woodwork when you ask for help.”

Cleveland volunteers
  1. Form a charity

A recurring theme with many campaign groups is that forming a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) widens the access to grants and funding.

Mick said the Brightlingsea CIO was torturous to set up and groups need to have a solid banking structure and management structure in place, but once they did their access to grant funding expanded.

He advised lido groups to start that process at the very beginning of their campaigns.

An alternative is to form a community interest company (CIC), which like CIOs has some of the advantages of a social enterprise but has a more flexible legal structure and directors can receive dividends from surpluses, although they have to pay corporation tax.

Paul said an ‘immensely helpful’ discovery for Cleveland Pools was a charity, Quartet Community Foundation in Bristol, which was set up to advise and support other charities.

  1. Don’t be disheartened by funding knockbacks

Paul revealed that Cleveland was dealt a substantial blow when their stage two bid for National Lottery Heritage Fund funding was rejected in 2018. But rather than pack in their 15-year campaign, they used the rejection to step up their strategy and they ‘blitzed’ the next application, eventually securing £4.7 million.

“Don’t be disheartened by knockbacks, go and talk to the people who’ve perhaps knocked you back and find out what the real reason is you’ve not succeeded at this point… What else do you need to do,” he said.

“Usually, when people tell you that, you’re learning something about your own project that you haven’t previously realised… ‘We’ve got a gaping hole there, we never thought of that’. There’s always someone out there who knows the answer.” 

  1. Create a sustainable, watertight financial plan

Mick said the Brightlingsea board wanted to be sustainable financially and energy-wise as soon as possible, so an initial step was to get accessibility consultants in; now the lido is a ‘leading accessible pool for anybody and everybody’.

To relieve the ‘horrendous energy bills’ some lidos face, Brightlingsea is looking to be completely fuelled by renewable energy by year five of their plan (they’re on year three), so they’re working to introduce air source heat pumps, solar heat exchangers and wind turbines to ‘take the chill off the water’ and extend the season from early April to late October.

“If we’re honest we’re not going to get 28ºC off it. We’d be happy with 23ºC,” he said.

He urged embryonic lido campaigns to look at their food and beverage revenue, which has been a big success at the lido, staying open for takeaways during lockdown when the pool wasn’t.

“We’re looking to get £30-40,000 from that a year just to top up and subsidise any potential losses [from the pool].”

“Don’t be disheartened by knockbacks… Usually, you’re learning something about your own project that you hadn’t previously realised. There’s always someone out there who knows the answer”

  1. Use renewable energy

Even the most sceptical of us is now acknowledging the climate emergency the world faces and renovated lidos have the opportunity to participate in the solution to global warming by investing in renewable energy.

It not only makes sense environmentally, it will help sustain lidos by massively reducing their outgoings. In Bath, the Cleveland trustees hadn’t considered the idea until a contact in the National Trust connected them with a consultant who had built a water-sourced heat pump in the sea in Wales. The introduction revolutionised the project, as their attention turned to the River Avon flowing right next to the pools.

“Out of the blue, because we’re telling people we’re doing a water-sourced heat pump, we’re going to save 140 tons of carbon out of the Bath atmosphere every year, the next thing is the local authority is saying there’s a national public-sector decarbonisation fund,” said Paul.

Within three months they’d raised another half a million pounds from a fund they had known nothing about.

  1. Communication is key

The collective memory of the community is a powerful driving force, according to Michael Wood. Closed and struggling lidos have an ‘emotional heritage’ and gathering that history and repurposing it is essential if you’re going to breathe new life into your lido.

Cleveland Pools have put heritage at the heart of their campaign, building into their new lido a heritage exhibition and learning space and schools education programme. Bath is a World Heritage site so the pools’ future was an emotive issue locally, said Paul, and ‘generating public interest and public reaction was not difficult’.

He added: “Getting someone on your trust or in your organisation who knows about PR, really turning out regular good news stories to keep you a) in the mind of the local politicians, decision makers and local community that you’re still there, you’re still working hard at it, is really important. And when it comes to really twisting arms, that PR and comms strategy always comes up trumps.”  

“We got people to sign up for potential volunteer work and to be interested in forming a committee of people who would come together and be part of a rescue strategy.”

Mick Barry of Brightlingsea Lido in Essex
  1. Prepare for a long haul

No lido renovation or reopening is easy. The national landscape is littered with campaigns that haven’t worked, but Paul Simons has words of encouragement for any fledgling group.

“From Cleveland Pools’ point of view it’s been a long haul,” he said. “There’s an immediate lesson there – never give up. These things are a long haul and they evolve in their character and that evolution is something people need to be aware of because it changes your priorities and the sort of skills you need and one shouldn’t be afraid to let it evolve.” 

Patrick McLennan is currently filming Splash Palace and will premiere it in 2023. Contact him at patrickmclennan@gmail.com