Pool Too Small Responds to New Project Architect

The new Westminster Lodge project architect has written to The Herts Advertiser (publication dated 17th March- see Sports Centre Protest Continues- his is the penultimate letter in the list). I reproduce his full text below, with my comments interspersed in light blue.

From The Herts Advertiser:

SIR - As a director of S&P Architects designing the New Westminster Lodge project, and a St Albans resident for 24 years, I would like to respond to the points raised in David L Gilry's letter (Herts Advertiser, February 25), and assure the people of St Albans that the new Westminster Lodge leisure centre will cater for their sporting and leisure needs.

On experience, S&P have completed over 100 swimming pools both internationally and in the UK, including designing 11 50-metre pools, including being a member of the design team for the London Aquatic Centre at the Olympic Park.

In respect of technical matters, S&P are currently writing the new Sport England guidance notes for facilities and sports, for new leisure buildings and swimming pools.

The letter only concentrates on the new competition pool, which Mr Gilroy correctly states has a greater capacity than the existing pool at Westminster Lodge. However it does not mention the new 17m x 10m learner pool, the depth of which can be adjusted from 0 to 2 metres. This is to provide activities from learn-to-swim to a warm-up pool for competitions.

Here at PoolTooSmall we think the larger learner pool is fantastic, but Mr Gilroy's original concern that the new main pool only adds space for an extra nine bathers still stands. Is the architect seriously implying that the learner pool could be used as an overflow when those nine extra swimmers have filled the main pool to its maximum load? Let's say it's a warm summer day during the school holidays; the main pool is full to its safety limit and there's still a long queue of hot and bothered wannabe pool users waiting at reception. Instead of having to turn them away, a whistle is blown pool-side and the learner pool's floor sinks to make a 17 meter general public overflow pool- and at the same time the adjustable half of the main pool's floor is then raised; the learners get transferred to share half the main pool with the general swimmers and half the general swimmers who were already in the main pool get transferred to the former learner pool (which is now the overflow pool... you still following me?) But won't the general swimmers (often raucous kids at peak holiday times) make waves and splash about, and won't this upset the delicate learners now sharing half their pool? Maybe the staff could ask potential pool users how 'splashy' they're going to be and if they'd like to be in a 17 or 12.5 meter pool? Customers could then be directed to use the appropriate 'pool-segment' (assuming it's no too full already... someone could keep count) and this could all be enforced by the lifeguards using a colour coded wrist banding system (I'm sure the lifeguards would be only too happy to take on this extra confrontation-inducing duty during probably the most difficult time of year). Does this sound even remotely practical to you?

In respect of the items raised:

1. The new complex increases swimming capacity by an additional 48 swimmers (not nine as stated in the letter) to a maximum of 213 persons. Both the competition and learner pools are capable of being varied to a maximum depth of 2m to allow greater flexibility of water use.

Mr Gilroy correctly states in his letter that the plan for the new main pool increases its capacity by only nine additional swimmers. The architect has already said that '[Mr Gilroy's] letter only concentrates on the new [main] poolbut he now goes on to imply that Mr Gilroy's figure of nine swimmers is wrong because the complex as a whole adds more water than this. Is it really that difficult to understand the difference between a discussion of the main pool area and the total water area of the complex? Does the architect really think we won't notice his sorry attempt to rubbish Mr Gilroy by deliberately misrepresenting what he's saying? The architect's willingness to resort to this kind of tactic just suggests desperation and contempt for the reader, and it makes me wonder if his grand total of 48 extra swimming places might also include the water area of the jacuzzi and 'spa experience' pools, and maybe even the wash basins!

The design was developed through public consultation meetings and has the support of local swimming clubs and the National Amateur Swimming Association including the requirements of Hertfordshire ASA, whose major aim is to ensure that the new complex is capable of hosting the County Championship in St Albans for the first time in 30 years.

If you take a look at the Westminster Lodge main pool time table what you see is that most of the hours of the day are allotted to general public and school swimming activities: "Lane Swim, General Swim, Public Swim, General Swim and Schools, General Swim, Family Swim, Diving, Zooms, Lane Swim, Adult Lane Swim, School Swim, General Swim, School Swim, General Swim, Inflatables, Schools, General Swim, Schools"... you get the idea. Occasionally you see "Swim Club", but its only maybe 5% of the total timetable. Even with the best will in the world, and with no disrespect intended to the clubs and club swimmers, they are only marginal users of the pool (and I bet if they were offered a 50 meter pool they'd be even more strongly in support). For anyone who actually has direct experience of the day to day life of a community swimming facility like Westminser Lodge this attempt by the architect and the council to marginalise the main pool as just a competition pool of interest only to swimming specialists comes across as out-of-touch and even downright disingenuous. The vast majority of people who use the main pool day in and day out are not club swimmers (though it is of course much easier for lazy planners to consult clubs because clubs are centrally organised; you only have to deal with a single contact person). Incidentally, one of the other minority activities you see in the current timetable is "Diving", "Diving Club" and "Diving & Life Saving Club", but unlike their swimming club cousins it seems the diver's opinions of the new plan aren't being stressed by the architect or the council (the divers are not exactly supportive on account of the new plan having no diving).

2. On the question of a 50-metre pool, the ASA have confirmed their future plans for the region, with the new 50-metre pool and diving centre at Luton, covering the eastern region.

Back in 2006 when the council effectively made its decision to go with a 25 meter pool one of the options they considered was a "Configurable 50 metre by 8 lane pool". The recommendation was that they should reject this option, and one of the factors they were urged to consider was that a 50 meter pool was just about to be built somewhere else (Hatfield in this case). To quote from the agenda of their 2006 meeting: "Members may wish to note that the University of Hertfordshire is currently exploring the potential of developing a 50 metre pool at its Hertfordshire Sports Village site and have developed concept designs on this basis" (I know all this because, for my sins, I have spent may hours trawling back over the last eight or so years of council's cabinet minutes). As we now know this 50 meter pool in Hatfield never happened. But now, what do you know, it seems a new 50 meter pool is once again just about to built somewhere else, this time in Luton. What if it turns out that the Luton pool doesn't get built? Is the architect then going to argue we should immediately build a 50 meter pool in St. Albans? In his next paragraph he switches back to the (old) idea that a 50 meter pool may be built in Hatfield after all, so what is his point? It seems to me he's just fishing around for reasons not to build a 50 meter pool in St. Albans, rather than making any kind of coherent argument.

Therefore a 25m x eight lane competition pool meets their national and regional strategy. The County Sports Facilities Strategy identifies the University of Hertfordshire as being the preferred site of a 50-metre pool in Hertfordshire.

Identifying somewhere as a preferred site for something is not the same as saying that the something is actually ever going to happen (for instance, I have identified the bottom of my garden as the preferred site for a big shed that is going to be filled with lots of gold bars). Is this 50 meter Hertfordshire county pool going to be built in Hatfield this year, next year, 2012, 2015, or is it really just a load of flannel like it was back in 2006? I have also read the Sport England- Active Hertfordshire Sports Facilities Strategy 2007-2016 report which (since the architect doesn't give a clear reference) I assume from the title and earlier mention of Sport England must be the "County Sports Facilities Strategy" he refers to above. On p30, section 2.133 of this document there is "a summary of Hertfordshire, its sporting characteristics and priority facility needs" which states quite specifically that:

for St Albans: "there will still be a deficiency of swimming pool provision despite the new facility development at Westminster Lodge"

On p50 of the same document, from the table in section 4.2 under "
Identified sports facility investment requirements: additional/enhanced provision, based on population increase and increased demand (5%)" it also clearly states that:

St Albans requires an additional: "2.3 swimming pools (4 lane x 25m) (excludes new pool, Westminster Lodge)"

Now, maybe I've got the wrong end of the stick here, but that sounds to me as though even just here in St. Albans we will be short of
more than one whole extra 25 meter by 8 lane swimming pool even taking account of the water space already in the current proposal. The report also says that "these identified needs are based on current and future population growth and participation increase of 5% to 2016" so it looks like the writers of this report would view the new Westminster Lodge plan as falling considerably short of the city's needs over the next several decades even if it had a 50 meter main pool.

3. The sustainable aspect of the complex is high on the agenda...

Back in October 2009 council cabinet discussed "The Development of New Leisure Facilities for the District" (agenda item here) and among other things "Low and Zero Carbon Technologies" were addressed. Cabinet was informed (page 23 of the agenda item) that a "zero carbon technology being considered is the possible installation of Photovoltaic panels - PVs (solar cells)" and that sunlight "is the most abundant energy source on the planet". They were also told that "Photovoltaic panels are suited to this type of development where there is a large annual base load of electricity" but that "the cost of 250 square meters of panels is, however, estimated to be in the region of £210,000, excluding any possible grants that we may be able to secure (max 50%)". Now, I have a calculator, and I divided £210,000 by the current cost of the new centre (£26 million) and I multiplied that by 100 and I got just 0.8%. That is under 1% of the current total cost of the project for 250 square meters of photovoltaic cells- and it could be down to less than half of one percent with grants. However, the agenda item then goes on to say that "The cost of the PVs has therefore been excluded from the cost plan at this stage". I find this difficult to square with the architect's statement that "the sustainable aspect of the complex is high on the agenda". On the bright side though, we are definitely getting a bistro and a spa experience.

...In comparison, the energy usage of a 50 metre pool with diving boards, increases energy costs above a 25m competition pool, by between 75 to 90 per cent per annum. This is due to increased filtration and heating, added to a substantial increase in building costs.

So the architect is actually admitting that doubling the size of a pool less than doubles the running costs (there are economies of scale etc.). Another way of putting this is that larger pools mean better value!

4. The feedback from the public consultation selected the non-diving Option 2.

Is the architect trying to argue that the public chose to eliminate diving? Does he really think anyone is taken in by the use of the 2009 public consultation to argue that there is public support for the council's preferred plan (pick one of only two choices- 'option 1' or 'option 2'- fiendishly clever). Every time this lame spin is trotted out I think it can only re-enforce in peoples' minds just what a low opinion councillors and their flunkies must have of public 
. This consultation somehow managed to be both depressing and insulting at the same time, and it still amazes me that councillors don't seem to realise that by trying to pull this kind of flimsy manipulation they're just alienating public opinion further. It just makes things worse.

The council acknowledge that the nearby excellent diving facilities at Hemel Hempstead, Hatfield and the proposed Luton Diving Centre with dry side diving training will provide for diving and that to duplicate these facilities will not give full value for money.

In other words, if you're a diver you can get on your bike (whereas if you're a club swimmer, you're in luck!). The reality behind this seems to be that if a section of the public can be found who happen to support what the council has already decided to do then they will make a big show of how they are listening and pro-actively accommodating diverse local stakeholder needs, but if some section of the public is unhappy about what the council wants to do or otherwise gets short changed then they are told something along the lines of: 'sorry, but council has already made that decision in cabinet and it can't be changed- we all have to accept that compromises have to be made- you can't please all of the people all of the time- and besides, there are facilities for what ever minority activity it is you want to pursue outside of your local area so all you have to do is get on a bus or train or something and go there instead- it's not like we're stopping you from doing it or anything'. This is effectively council's message to the diving club (and the Bricket Wood swimmers).

5. The proposed new Westminster Lodge leisure centre aims to meet a much wider range of St Albans sporting needs especially in dry sports, while inclusively involving the Abbey Theatre in creating a new public piazza and gateway to the park. This will meet the needs of present and future users of the leisure centre.

I am all for meeting a much wider range of St. Albans' sporting needs, and a piazza sound lovely, but is the architect really trying to say 'even if we are falling short on the swimming you're still going to get loads of other stuff that will be of interest to non-simmers because, in the grand scheme of things, we don't actually think public swimming is actually that important'? If this is really his and the council's position (and a case certainly can be made for this view) then let's at least get it out in the open. If in reality they know they're not going to be able to meet the demand for swimming because they've had to compromise on grounds of cost, but they still think their plan will deliver good value overall to the wider sporting community then, please, can't they just say so and we can all take a look at the numbers and have a grown-up discussion about whether or not this is actually a good compromise or not... because at the moment, from the outside at least, it looks to me like council just made up an arbitrary Wendy-house shopping list of features they 'sort of think a leisure centre should have in the 21st century' and maybe even included one or two things they would personally like as well, and now they're trying to force the whole thing through with a load of spin and bluster so they aren't exposed as a bunch of capricious power-happy amateurs.

After several years of developement and a year of public consultation with stakeholder and users of existing facilities, it is clear that the majority of the people of St Albans want a quality, sustainable building which interacts with the park and the theatre. I am confident that the new Westminster Lodge leisure centre will raise the standard of leisure and sporting facilities in our city and I look forward to using the centre.

Who doesn't want a quality, sustainable building which interacts with the park and the theatre? If the architect is trying to imply that the pool campaigners are somehow against this kind of grand vision then he is either knowingly trying to misrepresent us, or he's failed to understand our motivation. Just because we think there is a serious flaw in the new design doesn't mean we are against a lovely new sports centre. Is that really so difficult to grasp? We don't want to deny people climbing walls, bistros and mud-baths. We're not Scrooges who want to take away play fountains from adorable little toddlers and exclude wholesome natural light and carbon reduction technologies. We just think it's a really bad idea to build a pool that's not going to meet demand even before it opens... Oh- and we don't like being spun a yarn either- it makes us cross.


S&P Architects

By writing to the press S&P Architects may have transformed themselves from blameless hired enablers into prime council lightning conductors. The politicians will get into some serious blame management if this project comes off the rails, and politicians are well known for being adept at blame management (architects perhaps not so much). The architect clearly seeks to use his professional status and his company's reputation to bolster his authority in this correspondence, but he is also building an association in our minds between S&P Architects and the outcome and ongoing conduct of this project; a good thing if it all goes well, but not so good if it doesn't.

MBM. DLC 20100322