By Jason Cobb
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…