Save Our Baths remembered

BLUDDY journalists. They say what they like about politicians but if you go and criticise something they’ve written, just watch how superdefensive they get, all twitchy like a cat backed into a corner. Happy to give it out, those bluddy reporters, but they can’t take it themselves.

Prince of Wales Baths, NW5

Prince of Wales Baths (Kentish Town Sports Centre)

You’re thinking that already right?… but Labour councillor Theo Blackwell’s comments on these pages about the news coverage over what went on with the Prince of Wales Baths, that fine swimming pool in Kentish Town, needs a bit of context. It’s actually surprising that anybody with a red rosette would really want to revisit this chapter, one that gave the Liberal Democrats a leg up to winning council wards Kentish Town and Cantelowes for the first time in 2006.

The claims are more or less these: 1. There was never any real prospect to sell off the baths under Labour. 2. Labour would have refurbished the baths anyway had they had won in 2006. 3. The ‘Save The Baths’ campaign was just a bit of mischief making by the Lib Dems.

The undeniable truth in all of this was that the Prince of Wales Baths, more than 100 years old, were falling apart back in 2005. Boiler breakdowns meant it was closed more often than it was open and I remember clearly writing reports about how chunks of the ceiling fell into the pool. It was dangerous and dirty.

Labour’s handling of the issue was pretty sloppy and clearly nobody foresaw the PR disaster for the party that followed.

Point 1: There was never any real prospect of selling off the Baths.

As Labour members will tell you, officials were sent away by their chief councillors to find a fix. But the idea that disposing off the baths was never seriously thought about isn’t the story I remember. In fact, I recall former finance chief John Mills being very frank and open with me after a cabinet meeting and saying it was a building that might be too expensive to keep and there was a real prospect that it could be marketed. What’s more, Freedom of Information work I did later showed that the council did not just have a brief look at selling off the site and building a new pool elsewhere. Detailed architects plans for a replacement facility at the Talacre Leisure Centre had been drawn up. We could have a whole different discussion as to why when Talacre was commissioned, there wasn’t a pool included in the first place. One of Labour’s best achievements while running the council, they could have gilded the lily even more by including swimming facilities. They must after all have always known Prince of Wales would need sorting out sooner or later.

Point 2: Labour would have refurbished the baths if they had been re-elected in 2006.

This is undeniably true – and I wrote as much in a front page story in the New Journal. Labour were going to spend money on a refurb job, and at a cheaper price than the Lib Dems eventually signed up to. Trouble was, by the time this announcement was made, Labour had dithered for so long over the commitment that it was too late to make an impact. The party had let the issue swell up into something of great local importance. And while they stalled, it is true that the Lib Dems took maximum advantage. When the elections arrived there were probably many voters who were still unsure whether Labour were going to keep the open baths or not. Labour leader Raj Chada took to sending recorded phone messages around NW5. By that stage, I’m not sure if that did more harm than good.

Point 3: The ‘Save The Baths’ campaign was just a bit of mischief-making.

Thompson and Omar Faruque Ansari

Philip Thompson and Omar Faruque Ansari collect Save Our Baths petition signatures. They both went on to stand for the Lib Dems.

If the suggestion is that everybody who signed the massive petition urging the council to retain and refurbish Prince of Wales Baths was a Lib Dem, then we are dealing with a foggy recollection of the debate.

It is of course true that Philip Thompson and Omar Farque Ansari traded on their roles in this campaign group. They went door to door themselves collecting signatures. They also did not always declare themselves as Lib Dem candidates when doing talking about the issue – the kind of tactic I warned against a couple of post backs, the old trick where you don’t announce the candidates and then all of a sudden the petition-bearers of every local issue under the sun appear on the ballot paper.

The Lib Dems did do that with the Baths in Kentish Town but to cast the whole debate over the future of such a popular facility as mischief making can’t be right either. Whether they were Lib Dems or apolitical residents who just wanted a swim, the questions needed answering and Labour were slow and unclear to deal with them. They would have had much better headlines and coverage if they had realised sooner how the pool was becoming such a key issue with voters and acted decisively.

And so now, fast forward ten years, the refurbishment is in full flow. A couple of weeks back, I saw inside and was told everything is on time and on budget. We must hold them to account over those points right up until the finish line. But look inside and you can see the ambitious project might be about to produce something very special. With the light flowing through a roof once covered by dirt and wartime blackouts, Lib Dem leisure chief Flick Rea loves to say ‘it’ll be like swimming in St Pancras station’. There won’t be a champagne bar running along the side, but you can see what she means.

Inside Prince of Wales Baths

Inside: Prince of Wales Baths undergoing refurbishment

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3 Comments on Save Our Baths remembered

  1. Theo Blackwell // February 1, 2010 at 5:38 pm // Reply

    Er, we are entitled to have an opinion here surely – because we were there too y’know!

    I never said in my previous post that it was ‘Lib dem mischief making’, I merely pointed out that they wanted the fuss to go on as long as possible, hence ‘phase 2 of the campaign’ was around the learners’ pool, which stands to be one of the most expensive ones in municipal history.

    Nor do I deny that the political handling of it was poor. It was and came in the 2 week period of wobbled after Jane Roberts decided to stand down – a veritable gift to local lib dems! However, the fact is that Labour had a commitment in 2002 to refurbish the pools and made another one in 2006, as we didn’t have time to do it (partly because the gvt powers for prudential borrowing, which today is allowing the council to refurbish the pools, wasn’t in place – that’s a fact). The rather undeft long period of time in various officer reports was also unhelpful, but did set out a rnage of option for the future of the baths (in detail).

    Why did it take a long time? Because it wasn’t a political document – it was one detailing the spending of large sums of public money! I think this is something some lib dems at least might appreciate now they are in power.

    John Mills is/was known for his rather open exposition of a wide range of financial problems the council faced (in contrast to this administration, it should be noted). However, the decision would have come down to the executive and there wasn’t ever going to be any other option than to refurbish the baths – read no other show in town.

    However, considerations still needed to be weighed up such as (a) the overall cost of a big project versus (b) competing demands on finances (e..g Oasis, school south of euston road). The new administration opted for £25m

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    • Richard Osley // February 1, 2010 at 5:47 pm // Reply

      Cheers Theo: Like I said at the top, journalists – they can give it out, but rush from criticism like cats from water. Obviously, the Baths was a pretty major reporting issue at the time and the point I’m making here was that it wasn’t just the Lib Dems who wanted guarantees back then that it wouldn’t close.

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  2. Richard – your reference to the plan for the swimming baths to be at Talacre rather than Grafton/PoW Road is interesting as it may give some insight into what went on around that time. From the rather thin planning file on the Talacre flats scheme(s), I learnt that the consultants on the scheme for a swimming bath at Talacre saw the scheme for the flats development on Dalby Street as being flawed. One of several FOI requests I recently sent referred to that. However, last Tuesday I received a recorded delivery letter from Camden saying they will not respond to that request, the others from me that are overdue or any more. In case you believe there is no smoke without fire, you can find them on http://www.talacrefacts.org.uk. The decisions taken around that time seem quite astonishing – see http://www.savetalacre.co.uk. Theo will be familiar with much of this as I have recently emailed all councillors about their responsibility and none of the three main parties are without guilt.

    Nick Harding
    http://www.savetalacre.co.uk
    http://www.talacrefacts.org.uk

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