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.
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.
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.