REVIEW: Clapham Leisure Centre

By Jason Cobb

New pool at Clapham leisure centre

The new Clapham Leisure Centre finally opened its doors on 2 January after years of neglect and dithering by successive administrations at Lambeth Town Hall. But what does all of this mean for the folk of Brixton? Hopefully the congestion in the swimming lanes down at the Rec might now start to ease off. Brixton is a very welcoming place, but when an SW4 refugee elbows you in the face, then your patience can start to be tested.

If you feel like making the short trip down Acre Lane to try out the new Clapham pool, what can you expect? Size isn’t anything, which is just as well, seeing as the local Labour party boasts:

“The new leisure centre on Clapham Manor Street has just opened its doors – and it’s twice as big as the old one!”

This is untrue. The old Clapham pool was built in the pre-metric days, and could boast a measurement of 33 yards. The new pool has been reduced to a more standard 25 metres. Which should be adequate for most swimmers, but comes nowhere near to the beauty and freedom of the 50 metres that we can boast with Brockwell Lido.

A wider pool is in place at the new Clapham when compared to the old girl, but the paradox is that the lanes are now narrower. There is just about enough room for two swimmers to pass. Watch out for those SW4 elbowing boys and girls…

Size and length woes aside, the main pool is housed in a cavernous structure. It is a grand gesture of ambition, but also leaves you feeling a little empty. Seating is provided for spectators. A return of the once annual South London Swimming Gala would be most welcome.

But before you can freestyle, you need to swim. Or something. How does the everyday swimming experience stack up in SW4? Sadly it is not very favourable. The dreaded ‘village style’ changing facilities are woeful. Rather than single sex changing rooms, the current fashion is for individual cubicles and shared showers.

This means that once you have wrestled to get your shreddies on in a compact changing area, you then have no privacy to shampoo your short and curlies. It may sound trivial, but for swimmers who swim seven days a week, showering is at the centerpiece of your personal hygiene routine.

Signs pointed towards the toilets, but I couldn’t find these. I had to ask for guidance, and even then it involved walking past the pool in shoes to reach the (thankfully) single sex toilet arrangements. A poolside clock would have been nice as well – not for toilet timing, but for making sure that the working day didn’t overrun.

Reviews elsewhere on the near neighbour loveclapham hyperlocal blog haven’t been very positive:

“I may be nit picking but we’ve waited years for it and it’s just disappointing. Brixton may have staff that are more interested in buffing their nails than serving you, and the cleaning ladies like to throw bleach at your feet, but all in all the facilities are miles better.”


A nice touch is the naming of the new parallel side street as Bicycle Mews, SW4. Here be… bicycle racks.

But what of the cost of this grand scale public project during these economically challenging of times for all local authorities? The Lambeth Labour party website once again boasts: “It hasn’t cost council taxpayers a penny!”

Which is true, but there is no mention of allowing the developer, the Cathedral Group, to build 199 new homes on council land that are now being sold off for private profit. It is the classic model of Public Construction Finance – put simply, you scratch our back and build us a new swimming pool, and we’ll build 199 new homes on your land that we can then sell on.

With the Cathedral Group spending £75m on the Clapham One regeneration scheme, you can get a sense of the corporate payback expected in delivering so generously such a public scheme to the residents of South London.

The opening of the new leisure centre has now apparently been incorporated as part of the ambitious Co-operative Council plans. This is the policy being implemented by Lambeth Council that removes responsibility from the council itself, and passes this down to the residents.

The new Clapham pool was rubber stamped before the brainwave of the Co-op Council, and the out-sourced leisure operator, Greenwich Leisure Limited, is still undertaking the day-to-day management. GLL has been undertaking a decent job in managing the leisure provision for Lambeth Council, despite coming up against some rather trying set of circumstances. It will be interesting to observe how more co-operative the new facility will become.

“Free swimming for every resident” was pledged by Lambeth Labour in their manifesto ahead of the 2010 local elections. It is difficult to see how this promise can now be fulfilled, given the pressure on funding coming down from a national level.

After a cold shower and toweling off in the compact cubicle, you would be hard pushed to argue that Clapham is no better off now that is has this new facility. Much disruption – to Brixton swimmers remember – has come about during the painful re-building process. But we are where we are, as friends in higher places than those at the town hall were once fond of saying.

Brixton Rec stacks up as an early ’80s regeneration build that has served the community well. Gripes will always exist, but Brixton folk continue to love the Rec, year in, year out. Will the new Clapham compare favourably some thirty years later? Unless the shower facilities improve, then they’ve got you by the short and curlies…

Jason Cobb blogs at Onion Bag Blog. He recently moved to Wivenhoe, but blogged for years in south London and is an expert in Lambeth swimming


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  2. Don’t understand the point of this review…the new leisure center is actually very good and comfortable!! I really wish there could be centers like this all around the country…which kind of review is this?!

  3. What a shame you couldn’t find a local resident to review the pool. Mr Cobb lives in a village in Essex and has a long-standing public antagonism to Lambeth Labour Party which, sadly, has jaded his review. Our council has just opened the first new leisure centre in Lambeth for 30 years and we’ve done it in the middle of the worst recession since the Second World War – an achievement Mr Cobb dismisses as ‘dithering’. Furthermore, we’ve done it by taking the site off the auction books, where the previous Lib Dem / Tory administration had it up for sale, and by bringing in a partner to build new homes which has funded the development so there’s no cost to local tax-payers. Mr Cobb says it’s ‘not true’ the new site it twice as big as the old one – but it is. We incorporated the old disused depot site behind the old leisure centre into the scheme, meaning we could build a bigger new leisure centre. Mr Cobb disingenuously tries to make out that ‘new leisure centre’ means only ‘swimming pool’. It doesn’t. From my own visits to Clapham Leisure Centre, and comments from users I’ve spoken to, this new facility is a fantastic and very welcome addition to Clapham. The fact that it already has twice as many members as the old one had – after only being open a matter of days – really says it all. I hope in future you will try and find local people to review the new facilities Lambeth’s Labour council is building across Lambeth. We will soon have the best public leisure provision of any council in London. Clapham’s new library opens next month at a time when other councils are closing libraries down. It would be good to hear the views of Clapham residents, rather than the residents of Essex, about that.

    • Steve – you know that I work in your schools and use Clapham for swimming. You often talk of the success in attracting people to the borough to work and use the facilities. I am one of those people. The antagonism that you speak of is being confused with accountability. Having been one of the many residents that suffered when Streatham, Clapham and Brixton were all closed simultaneously, it is not surprising that many questioned the provision of leisure in the borough, and the reliance on private capital to… Keep Clapham Swimming.

      It is to your credit that you have finally started to turn this situation around. Streatham Hub is finally back on schedule, albeit with Tesco being allowed to dictate the size of the development. The Clapham pool is impressive, but still smaller than the original. It seems petty getting into semantics, but 25 metres is smaller than 33 metres.

      The review is fair. Take a look at some of the comments from other users on the neighbouring Love Clapham blog:

      The changing room situation is far from ideal. The current trend for ‘village’ [urgh] style facilities may gain you plaudits in the architectural world, but from a user perspective, it is damn inconvenient when you want a proper male wash in the morning, if you know what I mean.

      The dithering comment is accurate. The old Manor Street pool was due to close well in advance of the actual date when you started work. With the capital for the project coming from The Cathedral Group, the private company was in control of the timeline. When the recession kicked in, Cathedral dithered. This was no great inconvenience as there wasn’t a lot wrong with the old pool. At least Keep Clapham Swimming remained true. The later problems that you suffered with all swimming provision in the borough being closed, or restricted, was down to the policy of letting Cathedral, Tesco etc control the events.

      Leisure was a central point to your election manifesto with the “free swimming” pledge. If you want to continue this discussion, how about meeting up? I am free most afternoons after finishing work in your schools.



  4. Michael

    The new Clapham pool is an impressive structure, but the user experience remains underwhelming. Queues are starting to match Brixton Rec proportions at peak times, which is quite some going. The signage is poor, and the shower situation is badly thought out. Reducing the size of the pool was a mistake.

    I’ve found it hard to fit in a swim in ahead of work, due to the extra time it takes to queue and sort yourself out in the restricted cubicles. But it’s great that it has been built, even with the sacrifice of council land for 199 private homes.

    Are you posting up your comment as a personal opinion, or is it as part of your position as the PA to Steve Reed?

    • Thank you Jason for your reply. I am delighted that you acknowledge that this is an impressive structure and assume a welcome addition to leisure provision in the borough. Your comments regarding your user experience are useful and what one would hope to read in a review.
      I am glad that the new Leisure Center is proving popular with local residents and those visiting the borough and I hope that as things settle down over time, yours and other users comments are taken on board. It appears that they are listening already.
      And yes, I am employed as PA to the Cllr Reed, but first and foremost I am a father of 4 young children and resident of Lambeth of some 24 years. The views that I express here are my own. I do not write either as an employee of Lambeth or at the behest of anyone else.
      Enjoy your swimming, I know that I will.

  5. What a disappointing review this is. It says less about this new leisure centre and more about Mr Cobb’s personal hatred of Labour in Lambeth.
    Strange when you know that Mr Cobb’s new home of Wivenhoe has no swimming pool at all and in a recent article on his on blog he states that ‘A 25m pool would be perfect for the project’.
    I, like most long term residents of Lambeth know that this is a welcome addition to Lambeth and forms part of a comprehensive package of leisure facilities that residents of Wivenhoe can ever dream about.

  6. You should have asked someone where the private showers by the pool are before writing this! I thought there were none also, but they are on the left hand side of the pool, just around from the individual changing rooms.

    Also the clock is up now , they need to close for 24 hours to put it up, thats why there was a delay. I know this because I speak with the staff there every day and I must say how friendly they are. I am training for a swimathon and doing 5 classes a week and find the the centre a far better experience than any of the private gyms in Clapham. It is also spotless.

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