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Winning the Pools?

St Annes Swimming PoolAfter his threats to Kirkham Swimming Baths last year, and his veiled threats to the future of St Annes Pool, our esteemed leader Commissar John Coombes now wants to privatise the swimming pools. He has no idea how to operate public services and, given the way he keeps closing them down (Ashton Institute, Public Toilets, St Annes CAB, the Kite festival.....) he displays all the hallmarks of wishing there were none to bother him.

He has already demonstrated complete financial incompetence managing our money - including mis-calculating his spending last year by over 1million, and  now he has owned up to managerial incompetence as well. 

His plan to privatise the pools is the last refuge of a management that has given up, thrown in the towel, and admitted defeat. 

He thinks someone else (and probably anyone else) can manage the pools better than he can.

So why is he giving up? Why can't he manage to do what every other Fylde Councillor before him did with both style and success?

No doubt there are some issues about costly renewals at Kirkham baths, it is an old pool, and probably needs bringing a bit more up to date. But it is a pool that is highly regarded, even loved, by its community. It taught thousands of children to swim, and they are now grown up and rightly defending it's future. Kirkham doesn't fall into the trap of being a superficial 'leisure pool' it is a real community swimming pool.

The Commissar clearly doesn't understand tradition and community, and counterbalance wouldn't be surprised to find him wanting to replace it with something like a 'vibrant leisure pool' that will destroy the same sense of tradition and community that existed in terraced houses before their families were moved to the vibrant, modern, soulless, highrise blocks that are now being demolished across the UK.

Word on the streets is that he is looking at a new pool for Kirkham - probably jointly with BAE or a school. That way he could probably sell the site of the Kirkham Baths for housing.

So why is he doing it? Why does he want to abandon what taxpayers have paid for?

Well, it can't be savings in capital spending. He has an election-ready, back-pocket war chest of around 3 million, so capital is probably the least of the Commissar's worries.

So is he doing it to save on day to day running costs? And if so, are there big savings to be made?

Privatisation brings no real benefit to us as taxpayers (although if a registered charity takes over there would be smallish saving from mandatory rate relief), so if he wants to cut housekeeping spending, savings will have to come from one of three places - either the staff (who will have to be paid less for doing what they do now, or do more for what they get and have less of them). Alternatively, savings could come from lower overheads, or they could come from higher admission charges or new 'added value' services. 

There are other areas for savings of course, but the scale of savings available from using, say, cheaper toilet paper or whatever, isn't likely to make that much difference in great scheme of things.

So let's look at the real options

Staffing costs
There is an argument that council staff get better pay and conditions than their private sector counterparts. At one time there was an element of truth in this, but now it's improbable. When Government introduced Compulsory Competitive Tendering for Swimming Pools, any slack that might have existed was taken up in order to win the tender against external leisure company bids, (which the Fylde pools staff consistently did). 

The pool staff already use private contractors for building and equipment maintenance and so on, so there's not much scope for savings there either.

Maybe they could work harder, or there could be less of them if a private company took over? 

Well no, really, they can't work harder. The job of a pool attendant is to attend. To be there. You can't increase productivity when the output is simply to be there to watch for problems. 

So what about having less of them to save money? 

Again, the scope for change is very limited. The Health and Safety Executive set the rules for staffing public swimming pools with attendants, specifying how many there must be per area of pool, (and the qualifications each staff grade must have). They also specify the periods of duty without breaks, and minimum periods of break between duty periods, (in just the same way that similar rules apply to professional driver's hours). This is in order to maintain a high level of concentration on pool activity.


There might be some private pools where commercial interests are allowed to compromise user safety, but surely, even the Commissar wouldn't allow a lower safety standard to apply when our children are involved.

But above all of this, a piece of legislation applies when new organisation takes over an existing undertaking. The 'Transfer of Undertakings - Protection of Employment Regulations' wraps a legal protection around the terms and conditions of existing staff on this sort of takeover. So there's really no scope for savings in staff costs, unless the Commissar is willing to compromise public safety by having cowboys instead of attendants.

Cutting Overheads
Superficially, this appears to hold more promise. The Commissar has presided over mushrooming overheads and non-productive costs since he came to power. Just this year he has spent over 250,000 to get rid of the previous Chief Executive, 198,000 so far on consultants etc to investigate moving offices (this is projected to be 230,000 by then end of this year). God knows how much on his disastrous 'Equitable Taxation?' plans that will come to nothing. He knows all about how to increase overheads.

But it's likely that many of these overheads are not really attributable to pools (For example would you agree that part of the cost of the Politburo 'away days' at the Preston Marriott, should be met by people using the swimming pool?).

So even if he says the privatisation will reduce these overheads, you can be sure it won't. The Commissar isn't going to stop having away-days just because private businesses are running the pools. He's not going to cut out his consultancies, or take a personal pay cut when only this year he doubled his special allowance from 3,000 to 6,000 - which of course makes it more difficult for - hard pressed staff to win contracts. No, he will just shift these overheads somewhere else, so there will be almost no actual savings.

But he is likely to play up the rhetoric on this. Using the spin and doublespeak that is becoming his trademark, he will SAY the new firm will cut overheads, and this will probably be the justification he uses to complete the privatisation. 

But in reality, there won't be massive cuts, he will just re-allocate his overheads when he reclassifies the pool staff as private sector employees. The pool accounts might show savings, but the costs will still be there, but hidden elsewhere in his accounts, just as the Commissar has hidden the money he squirreled out of the revenue accounts into a series of Earmarked Reserve accounts last year.

Higher Charges and Added Value Services
This is probably where the 'real' savings will come. But you won't see them in the short term, so you won't relate the higher charges to his privatisation. 

The most likely scenario is that the Commissar will agree a period of time before the Council reduces subsidy payments and allows the difference to be made up by higher charges and added value services like private hires and parties to generate more income. 

It won't sound like that of course, the spin for the scheme will be that the Council will continue to fund the pools for a fixed term - probably between four or five years and ten years - depending on how hard he negotiates the deal. Then, at the end of that, the new management will be expected to drop (or gradually reduce) the payments from the Council, and make up the difference by generating more income themselves (or going bust and leaving us to pick up the tab).

This way the Council has no blood on its hands, and a decent period elapses before the price rises start, during which all sorts of things can be blamed for the need to increase the prices.

So, does it matter? If it ends up with a lower cost overall in the long term, isn't that a good thing?

Well, it depends what you think swimming pools are for. 

If you see them as a business opportunity - as the Commissar seems to see them, then they are something to be got rid of because he can't make them run at a profit. He thinks privatisation is a fine idea.

On the other hand, given that they were built with the taxes paid by residents and former residents, who individually couldn't have afforded to have built them. And given that those people were (and still are) happy to shoulder the cost for the health benefits of those less fortunate, and most especially to teach generations of children to swim so they wouldn't be at risk of drowning, then you might think what the Commissar is doing is a gross abdication of his public duty, a betrayal of the public of Fylde, and an insult to the Councillors who had foresight and vision, and who struggled against the odds to get them built in the first place.

When he abandons those who can't afford private pools, when his action discourages children learning to swim, either because of higher charges or because the time is booked up with more profitable services, you might reflect that it's actually all his fault because he is such an incompetent manager, and it's him that ought to have gone, not the pools.

Dated:  29 September 2006


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