Ladywell Pool is part of a leisure centre that also contains a gym and other facilities. Built in 1965, it is very popular and well situated, close to the main Lewisham shopping centre. Ladywell is a pool that was built to a very high standard. It is longer than current standard 25 metre pools and so very popular with the many sections of the public who find these poky; it also includes a generous 3.8m deep end that once allowed full diving facilities until the Council dismantled them. Most importantly, as will become apparent, it is loved by the hundreds of local people who use it every day.
2004: the story starts
Users were delighted when the Leisure Centre, which had been shut for 20 months for emergency building works due to contractors uncovering asbestos in the cavity walls, reopened in mid-June 2004. Astonishingly, Lewisham’s Mayor announced almost immediately that the Council was now planning to shut and demolish the centre to make way for a new secondary school. So why had they spent £1.8 million on the building works? And why had there been no consultation about this decision? The closure was scheduled for 2007 and an “upgraded” replacement would be built in 2010 as part of the redevelopment of Lewisham Centre. The result? There would be no swimming pool for three years.
The campaign takes shape
The campaign against the closure was the initiated by local resident and swimmer Max Calò. Max printed 700 leaflets on his home computer and distributed them at a local festival. When 60 people took up the leaflet’s invitation to a meeting about opposing the plans, it became clear that the campaign had a future. The main demand: to keep Ladywell Pool open until the new promised facility was up and running.
“Save Ladywell Pool” soon developed a high profile, and was a major focus of Lewisham political life for a couple of years. Campaigners rejected the backstage lobbying which local groups often rely on, in favour of community-based activity such as leafleting, demonstrations and attending council meetings. The campaign’s active organising group usually consisted of around 10 people, but Max estimates that over 100 were involved in organising it at different times. Support came from a variety of sources, some quite surprising. These included the local paper and all the opposition parties – Conservatives, Greens and Lib-Dems – in this then Labour dominated borough.
In September 2004 150 campaigners delivered a petition with 5,300 signatures to Lewisham’s Mayor and Chief Executive. But the Council still refused to budge.
Victory in 2006
This kind of aggressive public campaigning against a Council decision was something relatively rare in Lewisham. As in many other boroughs, the Labour Party’s long term domination of the Council had sapped any kind of local opposition, allowing the Mayor and leading councillors to feel safe in taking decisions unilaterally, without thinking about what local communities wanted. In 2006, the Save Ladywell Pool campaign single-handedly changed all this.
The campaign’s work culminated in the local elections of summer 2006. Campaigners decided to intervene actively: for example during the run-up to election day they delivered 30,000 leaflets to households within walking distance of the pool. The impact on election results was staggering: Labour lost 11 out of 15 seats in the area the campaign had targeted, and overall control of the Council.
The newly elected Council, comprising only a minority labour party voted to keep the pool. Having initially refused to accept this decision, the Mayor (directly elected, thus holding all executive powers) finally went along with it. This seems to have been partly because of the campaign and partly because he had realised that it would take until after 2010 – also an election year – for the replacement pool to be ready.
So Ladywell Pool was saved, at least for the time being.
Extraordinarily, even the Council congratulated the campaigners, passing an unanimous motion in November 2006 which endorsed the U-turn decision and included congratulations for the campaign. The news got as far as the pages of The Guardian (December 2006):
“When, last May, Labour’s control of Lewisham council ended after 35 years, it was widely assumed that the slump in support for Mr Tony’s men was due in no small part to a bitter battle over the fate of the popular Ladywell baths, which Labour mayor Steve Bullock was hellbent on demolishing to make way for a new school, and residents were determined to keep. Despite swearing that he would “not be changing his mind”, Cllr Bullock last month did, announcing that the pool would stay open, the school would be built elsewhere, and that this was, of course, “the result I was always striving for”. The Save Ladywell Pool Campaign, he added magnanimously, was “a great example of how local people can get their views heard”. Oddly, the mayor told Time Out that the campaign, led by “a very small group of backward-looking people”, was “pathetic”. Presumably to put an end to all this confusion, the front page of Lewisham Labour Action now proudly proclaims: “Mayor Saves Ladywell Pool.” Fancy that!”
The pool again under threat
This story is about the original campaign, won in 2006. However, recent events strike a warning note. Early in 2007, the Council produced a new proposal for demolition, replacing the pool by a smaller, much less desirable facility tucked away in the basement of a massive new residential development near Lewisham Station.
Mindful of all the trouble they had last time round, the Council paid for an “independent” consultation exercise on whether local people supported the new proposal. In July Council officers, while reporting that the consultation results were inconclusive, recommended to the Mayor that he go ahead with the demolition plans,
Campaigners have been busy pointing out that the consultation was a con. They have exposed serious weaknesses in the way it was carried out, and even more importantly, as reported in “Private Eye” [3rd August 2007] uncovered that a key consultant involved has also been given the contract to manage the proposed new leisure centre. As the “Eye” commented: “No conflict of interest there, then!”
So the campaign is once more well underway. Keep posted by visiting http://saveladywellpool.com
Top Tips from the Ladywell Pool Campaign
What can other grass roots campaigns learn from this? For sure, the campaign did not rely on money for its success. It received no external funding and relied solely on donations from supporters to cover costs of printing and hiring of rooms – an estimated £5k over 2 years. Max has a few ideas about what helped them win:
What the campaign was about
It helped that the focus was on saving a swimming pool. Pools serve a wide cross section of the local community, and provide all sorts of people with something they actively enjoy and feel is useful. The campaign also tapped in to a real sense of civic pride about this excellent local facility.
How campaigners approached local people
Unlike the Council, campaigners assumed local people can understand sophisticated concepts. It credited them with the ability to understand what was really going on. Campaigners point out that politicians often underestimate people and argue at a very basic level.
To keep people involved, it was important that no-one who joined in with the campaign was asked to do anything that they didn’t want to do. With over 100 people actively helping at different times, it was important that each person was encouraged to do what they felt comfortable with.
And local organisations
From the beginning, the campaign succeeded in getting the backing of the local press. This really helped to keep it in the public eye.
Some experienced activists from other groups joined the campaign, including people from the opposition political parties. These often had their own agenda and the campaign provided them with a potential platform. This was fine up to a point, and their support was very useful; but it was important not to let them hijack the campaign, and to be aware of the need to balance their influence. A lot of work went into this, and into keeping the different groups united and focused.
The style of working
While it did not pull any punches, the campaign deliberately avoided sloganising. Campaigners did a lot of research and produced effective arguments based on detailed facts. In this way they were able to uncover and publicise basic omissions and misrepresentations in the Council’s statements (eg, showing that the Council was wrong in saying the current pool needed to be demolished because could not satisfy the Disability Discrimination Act’s requirements: in fact only very minor adaptations were needed to bring it up to the required standard.)
And finally: WHAT PRICE LOCAL DEMOCRACY?
This campaign shows that, against all the odds, it’s possible for local people to force those in power to listen to them.
It may be hard to credit that a campaign about something like a swimming pool could unsettle the whole political landscape of a borough. But that is what happened in Lewisham – a new community based campaign took on the entrenched power of the Council and won. Because for many years one party – the Labour Party – had been in power, an elite of career politicians and senior officers had dominated local politics and had been able to ignore the wishes of local communities. Thanks in large part to the Ladywell Pool campaign, it seems that era is now over.
[Story based on discussions with Max Calo, and on information from the campaign website: http://saveladywellpool.com]