As part of the current Coalition government’s deficit reduction strategy, October’s Comprehensive Spending Review handed local government the toughest financial settlements across the public sector. This budget cut was passed down to local authorities with Manchester City Council receiving one of the harshest and unfair financial settlements – compounded by the loss of substantial additional funding which reflected the level of deprivation in the city – resulting in a front-loaded budget cut of 25%.
Manchester City Council recently announced a plan to make these savings – £109 million in the next financial year and £170 million in the following year- proposing: the cutting of 2000 jobs, 17% of the current workforce; a cut in children’s services of 26%; 21% in adult services; along with the closure of public toilets, libraries, leisure centres and swimming pools. The council has been attacked by central government, for making party politics by targeting front line services. The council has responded by saying that this level of cuts simply cannot be absorbed through efficiency savings.
One of the swimming pools under threat of closure is in Levenshulme, a diverse and deprived area of south Manchester. Levenshulme is also the place where I live. I have used the baths two or three times a week since I moved to the area nearly three years ago. The baths are always busy and act as a social hub for the area, being well used by a wide cross-section of the community including local primary schools.
On 9 February, following the announcement of the proposed closure, over 150 people gathered outside the baths in a spontaneous protest which received national media coverage. A community email list, Facebook group and online petition were quickly organised. On the Friday of that week, a meeting – attended by over 200 people – was held at the local community centre, Levenshulme Inspire to plan action to save the baths. This action meeting was followed by a protest the following day where over 500 people marched along the high street to the baths. Regular action meetings have been held weekly, other protest and fundraising events have included a ‘swim in’, a banner making workshop, a beacon event which made the link between the closure of the baths and the Olympic legacy pledge. A local youth group is now making a documentary about the campaign.
The campaign has been by the community and for the community and particular mention should be made about the activities of the children from local primary schools which regularly use the baths. Pupils made banners, signs – many saying ‘I learnt to swim at Levenshulme Baths’! – but most impressively, several spoke at meetings and presented about the importance of the baths to them and why they should be saved.
This campaign is undeniably political. But there has been a strong consensus amongst campaigners that it should not be party political. Indeed all three of the main parties have received criticism about the proposed closure. Councillors and local MPs have had an opportunity here to really be champions of the communities they espouse to represent and it is one that shouldn’t be squandered by political point scoring which only angers the community further. Councillors have however listened to this strong campaign from the community and made a u-turn and have now asked officers to find funds for a modern, most cost-effective facility for Levenshulme and to keep the existing baths open until this replacement is available.
The decision to save Levenshulme Baths has been met with a degree of surprise and a great deal of relief and happiness in the community. Moreover, it has given confidence that community action can work even in the seemingly most difficult of economic situations. Being involved in this protest has been inspiring not only for its impact, but for the energy, organisation and enthusiasm of the campaign. The lessons I will take from this campaign are: believe you can succeed, act quickly, get organised, be inclusive and try and make it fun.
The wider campaign against the cuts in Manchester continues with the real concern that whilst Levenshulme Baths may be saved, it is likely that another public service in Manchester will be hit. For all its espoused enthusiasm for community organising and action in the so-called ”Big Society’, the Coalition government is likely to find that much of this action is likely to be resistance to its policies as cuts begin to impact on the lives of ordinary people.