An MHK has lambasted a report into the swimming pools in the island, saying it was littered with ‘glaring errors’.
Michelle Haywood took issue with a number of facts and figures in the Knight, Kavanagh and Page swimming pools report, which suggests the government step in to secure the short-term future of regional pools, was voted through by Tynwald on Thursday with an amendment despite a number of changes needing to be made.
A strategy will now be developed to secure the future of swimming pools in the island.
Most aspects of the new strategy will be taken from the findings and suggestions of the swimming pools report.
He said it would broaden the scope of the motion with three key principles.
‘The first is the short term realistic prospect of the southern swimming pool board trading whilst insolvent or worse closing its doors altogether,’ he said.
‘The amendment seeks to give some reassurance that the facility will remain open while deliberations continue, a commitment to fund an efficient and effective service in the short term.
‘Secondly, it’s a recognition that money is tight and the Treasury can’t deliver all things to all people.
‘This therefore seeks consideration of a wider set of outcomes than simply DESC nationalisation of pools and raises the prospect of private finance being included in regional sports hubs, which seems a sensible way to make these regional facilities more viable.’
He added: ‘And finally, I do reject some of the criticism in the report about past and present members of the southern swimming pool board, which isn’t supported by evidence in the report.
‘However, I feel there needs to be recognition of the value of local authority members that have been brought into this area and due consideration should be given to include their voice in the future journey.’
Having served as a representative on the southern pool board for two years previously, Dr Haywood, one of Rushen’s MHKs, dispelled any rumour that the southern board didn’t claim Covid-19 support payments, saying: ‘The pool board at the time worked incredibly hard to recognise the staff needed to be paid even if the facility was shut. That was the morally right thing to do.’
She explained that in relation to maintaining a healthy reserve, it was reported ‘year on year’ that the reserves for the southern pool were being depleted.
‘This was in part due to a political decision taken by the department to freeze the subvention rate instead of linking it to any sort of inflation rate,’ Dr Haywood said.
‘This freeze existed for many years and in my time on the board we established it was triggered during the VAT crisis and at a time when the pool did have healthy reserves to call on but it was a department decision that systematically underfunded all the pools for years.’
Backing what was said by Mr Watterson, she was disappointed with the ‘disparaging’ comments made about previous board members without identifying which decisions were ‘detrimental’.
‘As a consequence, they have managed to dis several competent board members,’ she added.
‘No one that was involved in the report considered the matters of accuracy or fairness. ‘Apparently you can be condemned without the right to reply.’
Ms Edge made clear in her opening statement that the report was carried out by independent company Knight, Kavanagh and Page externally.
But Dr Haywood stressed that ‘if you don’t do the right research, don’t speak to the relevant people and fail to understand the current position clearly’, then ‘you can draw conclusions that have been requested by whoever commissioned you to write the report’.
She added: ‘How on earth this report manages to avoid identifying the real underlying problems that freezing the subvention, not spending the allocated maintenance budget each year, and not realising the need for an increase in the rates to balance against rising costs could ever have made a sustainable situation, I don’t know.’
Pointing out what she felt was the ‘most startling’ argument in the pools report, the MHK says the government has ‘apparently’ made the conscious decision not to invest in the southern pool.
‘What a pity that the department didn’t bother telling the hardworking pool board at the southern pool that they were actually in managed decline,’ she said.
‘Actually it’s more than a pity, it’s a profound shame.
‘The previous boards were labouring to keep the facility going when the sponsoring government department had other ideas, just hadn’t bothered to communicate them.’
She continued: ‘Does this fill you with hope that handing the managing of the pools to the department will mean that the pool that each community so values continues to be supported or will there be more secret decisions to wind down other pools in the future?
‘The report hasn’t really looked into the future. Despite dealing with energy costs, they missed that electricity prices are likely to rise again.
‘It’s not a secret, but it does reflect some of the poor research underpinning this report.’
Dr Haywood also found issues with suggestions made about how to run swimming lessons.
‘There’s some quite dangerous suggestions in here to cut the level of lifeguard cover in swimming lessons without acknowledging that it makes a huge difference for the level of the lesson and whether the swimming teacher is on poolside or in the water,’ she said.
‘There are at least two incidents each year in the pool on the island where a lifeguard has to intervene during a swimming lesson to rescue a child in difficulty.’
She added that it was wrong to assume all attendees at swim schools are from the local catchment areas, pointing out basic research on postcodes of attendees would have revealed this.
She said: ‘This is flawed data.’
Dr Haywood concluded: ‘It’s always been the same. Fine words, no identifiable actions that followed.
‘Lack of government oversight is not the only contributor to the pools’ problems. Lack of support in human resources, contract, employment law, maintenance, subvention freezes, secret decisions to manage the decline have created intolerable pressures.
‘It almost feels like the department has been disinterested in the annual financial reports that come in from the boards that demonstrate how the situation has been evolving over years.
‘By the time I got to the end of this report I was left wondering why they didn’t redirect it further.’
Following on from this, many of her fellow MHKs agreed with the points Dr Haywood had made during the debate and opted to support the amendment.
Ms Edge stressed again in response that external consultants met with all pool boards, in which the department wasn’t involved, so comments made in the report were ‘completely independent’.
‘We felt Knight, Kavanagh and Page were the right specialists to carry this work out,’ the minister said.
She added that the southern pool has had government support over the last 18 months, with a sum of £60,000 given to it.
Making the point again that the pools are independently run, Ms Edge said the governance hasn’t been in place and that was why the government wanted to make sure governance ‘is appropriate’.