A Kingston mother is worried that her five-year-old cannot swim. She wants him to learn but since the Kingfisher Leisure Centre closed its doors, she says she has no other viable options.
She regularly used the centre as it was within walking distance of home but is now struggling to find an alternative and affordable option.
“We had splashed and played but weren’t ready for lessons yet and then boom it closed. We tried some pools far away, but it was such a fuss to get there and back, and it was so expensive,” she said.
“For people with variable incomes and people without cars this is really unfair. It is depriving kids of their right to swim.”
The Kingfisher Leisure Centre, built in 1984 in the centre of Kingston Upon Thames, had to close its doors in 2019 due to a collapsed roof and natural wear and tear. The demolition of the centre has since been the topic of petitions and strong debates in council meetings between councillors and residents.
A petition containing 3,276 residents’ signatures was submitted to the council on 5 October, urging councillors not to demolish the centre before guaranteeing to replace the facilities. It also appealed to the council to provide a cost breakdown justifying the replacement building rather than repairing the collapsed roof.
In a council meeting on October 12, this petition was debated and Green Party councillor Sharron Sumner requested an amendment be voted on pausing demolition of the centre until concrete plans were made for the new complex. However, it was voted against.
Until the newly planned centre is built in 2024, Kingston town centre will therefore be without a pool and leisure facilities.
Without a local pool
The Malden Centre is over two miles away in New Malden and is the cheapest alternative that the council has offered for locals to go to. It is where most swimming lessons have been moved to since the Kingfisher closure. Still, it is a bus journey or a 45-minute walk away.
The more conveniently located, yet both private and expensive, is at the David Lloyd in the Rotunda in the centre of Kingston, with steep prices from around £100 a month.
In the council meeting on October 11, former Liberal Democrat councillor Jon Tolley, who quit the party in protest of the Kingfisher decisions, said that the lack of a local pool affects the poorest residents.
“I don’t think the council should choose to allow the people of the Kingston neighbourhood to be without a pool for five years, or realistically longer,” he said.
Swimming lessons save lives
With Kingston being quite literally Upon Thames, the drowning risk is significantly higher than a town with no open body of water.
A ‘Water Incident Database’ (WAID) created by the National Water Safety Forum, found that in 2020, 242 people died in water in the UK, most of these deaths were in inland water.
What is even more sobering is that in 2018, 30 people drowned in the Thames River, accounting for 8 per cent of drowning-related deaths nationally.
105 people who entered the Thames triggered interventions by the emergency services, as stated in the Drowning Prevention Strategy by the Tidal Thames Water Safety Forum.
According to the national swimming body, Swim England: “Drowning is still one of the most common causes of accidental death in children, so being able to swim is an essential life-saving skill.”
As well as the health benefits such as cardiovascular exercise, improvement of stamina and posture, and physical strength, swimming gives learners motivational challenges and improves confidence.
Children’s swimming lessons at the Kingfisher followed Swim England’s Learn to Swim Award’s syllabus which taught youngsters the fundamentals of swimming as well as vital drowning prevention measures.
To complete stages one to ten, which are aimed at children aged 3-16, the pupils must be able to recall water safety guidelines such as performing an action to get help. Actions that would be essential should a child find themselves in the Thames.
Swim England also provides an option for children to take the Water Safety Awards which have been created in partnership with Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Royal Lifesaving Society UK. According to Swim England, the awards aim to teach “water danger awareness, self-rescue techniques and vital survival skills in clothes, without swimming goggles.”
A wide impact
The closure of the Kingfisher has not only affected children’s access to swimming lessons, but local sports clubs have also felt the effect. “The Kingfisher pool was our home,” said Lynn Hayes, 64 and retired secondary school PE teacher and chair of the Kingfisher Triathletes.
“Our Triathlon Club has been displaced ever since it closed. We have at last found a replacement much further away in Elmbridge, but it’s probably impacted on our numbers and viability,” she said.
Another Kingston mother and her family went to the Kingfisher regularly. She was part of the Kingfisher Triathletes but had to find a local alternative when the centre closed. She now takes part in open-water swimming in the Thames.
Her daughters used to have swimming lessons at the Kingfisher and the other swam with Kingston Royals swim club.
“Kingston Royals have lessons in New Malden at seven in the morning on Saturdays which was a bit too much to handle for our family.”
Liberal Democrat support for demolition
However, Lib-Dem councillors remain positive about the new leisure centre and say it is worthwhile.
Liberal Democrat Councillor Rebekah Moll said: “I know that the Kingfisher continuing to be closed is a disappointment for many, but as a local mum I’m excited that Lib Dems have committed to a new swimming pool that will not only benefit my children, but generations to come. Any option to reopen the pool will take a number of years, but the additional few months needed to deliver a brand-new complex will be well worth the wait.”
Liberal Democrat Councillor John Sweeney said: “Across the borough, it is more difficult when there is one less pool … The bigger problem for the schools is that maybe they could walk to the Kingfisher, now they might need to arrange transport like a bus which puts budgetary pressure on the schools if they want to do that.”
He explained that the new pool will be bigger, with two more lanes than the previous six, and adjustable floors so that the whole pool could be made shallow so that there is more capacity and therefore more swimming lessons can take place.
“The maintenance of the Kingfisher was so poor… we were not able to extend the life of it. What we are doing is securing a leisure centre on that site for 50 years,” he said.
But until the new pool is built, Kingston residents will be without a central pool.
“I fear for future generations who must learn to swim but this will be determined by family finances now,” Hayes said.