As temperatures soared in July, many of us escaped to swimming pools. At this time of year, the smell of chlorine mixed with sunscreen and fried food takes me back to the outdoor pool where I learned to swim in the early Nineties.\n\nOutdoor pools, however, are a rare amenity these days. Widespread closures of lidos in the 1980s, following a decline since their 1930s heyday, have since pushed British swimmers to open water and sea swimming when heatwaves hit.\n\nDuring the last weekend of July, six people died in incidents in rivers and lochs in Scotland alone, in what has been described as the country\u2019s worst weekend \u201cin memory\u201d for deaths by drowning. Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, with the highest rates among children aged one to nine.\n\nThe World Health Organisation recommends \u201cteaching school-age children basic swimming, water safety and safe rescue skills\u201d.\n\nHowever, public swimming pools are under threat from a mix of ageing infrastructure, cuts to public funding and the growing number of private pools attached to exclusive gyms and health clubs.\n\nIn January 2020 the Local Government Association warned that just under two-thirds of council leisure centres were \u201coutdated\u201d and in need of \u201curgent new investment\u201d, and a quarter had not been refurbished in more than 20 years. That was before the pandemic forced swimming pools to close along with other indoor sport and leisure facilities.\n\nIn the Wirral, in north-west England, several public swimming pools that were closed during lockdown were converted into vaccination centres, says local councillor Pat Cleary. The council has reopened most of the pools for the summer, but this decision was \u201cchallenging\u201d, he says, because it had to balance the advice of public health officials to keep some pools closed against the need and demand from residents for affordable leisure.\n\nBut beyond the pandemic, there are concerns about the future of swimming in the Wirral. The local children\u2019s fun pool is in poor condition and has been deemed by the council as too expensive to reopen permanently (it is currently open temporarily for the summer holidays).\n\n\u201cSome facilities [were] already problematic from a cost point of view, [now] those issues are being amplified because costs are going up due to the pandemic,\u201d he says. When the money from central government for Covid-19 recovery runs out, Cleary is concerned that councils across the UK will find it much harder to operate swimming pools.\n\nCleary believes private facilities were more able to access government funding during the pandemic compared with public ones. As a result, he says, private pools have been \u201cadvantaged\u201d and may have attracted more customers and subscriptions than public facilities.\n\nWithout investment there will be a \u201csteady decline\u201d in the stock of pools over the next ten years, according to Alex Hains, head of business engagement at the Swim England governing body.\n\n[see also: Keep your wild swimming \u2013 I lost my heart to municipal swimming pools]\n\n\u201cWe have a large percentage of our pools which are past their sell-by date to some extent,\u201d he said. \u201cThey were built over 30 years ago, which is the typical lifetime of a leisure centre without significant refurbishment and development.\u201d\n\nAt the moment, England has \u201cslightly under\u201d the number of pools it needs to serve the population, while some areas are also more \u201cwater-deprived\u201d than others.\n\n\u201c[Public leisure centres] are uniquely placed outside of the private pop-up gyms and the private health clubs and other sporting activities in their service to health and well-being,\u201d Hains says.\n\nPrior to the pandemic, Swim England investigated the investment needs of the sport and found funding was most urgently required in areas of higher deprivation.\n\nCovid-19 has escalated the conversation around critical funding for swimming pools because councils have been footing the cost of the facilities that closed during the pandemic.\n\nSport England\u2019s National Leisure Recovery Fund helped operators recover some of the losses they suffered, and Swim England is calling on the fund to be renewed to help pools stay open. \n\nThe real crunch point will come in 2022 when councils set their budgets and carry out options appraisals on whether to close facilities in order to help balance the books. \u201cNext year is the looming crisis,\u201d Hains warns.\n\nJohn Carroll Leisure Centre in Nottingham permanently closed in June 2021. \u201cRadford Swimming Club has been swimming at John Carroll since 1984,\u201d says the swimming club\u2019s chairman Bernie Walker, who has coached at the club for more than 20 years.\n\nAt the start of 2021, Nottingham City Council announced it needed to make cuts of \u00a315.6m. This was on top of the anticipated loss of \u00a338m the council had invested in its energy company Robin Hood Energy, which went into administration.\n\nJohn Carroll Leisure Centre was an \u201ceasy target\u201d, according to Walker, because while the centre served the local community, it was not as busy as other centres.\n\nThe council has told Radford Swimming Club its swimmers can use another pool in the city, and the council has worked to secure them extra water time at these facilities, but Walker says a lot of the children will not want to change locations.\n\n\u201cThe people in that area needed that facility and they\u2019ve lost it,\u201d he says.\n\nGeoff Wade manages swimming across Gateshead council\u2019s five swimming pools in the north of England. \u201cCovid forced us to look differently at how we deliver swimming,\u201d he says. \u201cPreviously, public swimming was often programmed in around more profitable swimming lessons and clubs, rather than being treated as a core offer in its own right.\u201d\n\nCovid-19 changed everything. It made pre-booking essential, and gave Wade and his team a chance to define session types and times that matched with the different types of swimmers at the pool and helped them ensure there was a \u201cquality swimming environment every time\u201d. The changes proved so popular that 60 per cent of lane swimmers at the pools agreed they had swam more regularly as a result, he says. \n\nWithout fewer public pools, however, access to affordable swimming hangs in the balance \u2013 and with it a valuable life skill that is key to our physical health, well-being and safety. The summer days we spend poolside may be numbered.