England’s swimming ‘deserts’ revealed: some areas have 10 times less public swimming space than others

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: NationalWorld.com, JPIMedia

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 24/08/2021

Credit: Claire Wilde


Claire Wilde is data and investigations editor for the JPIMedia group, consisting of about 150 local and regional news titles in the UK along with its national brand, NationalWorld. She was formerly the crime correspondent at The Yorkshire Post and has written for the BBC, i and The Scotsman.

Project description:

As Team GB celebrated success at the Tokyo Olympics, gold medallist Duncan Scott made headlines by warning of a spate of pool closures i. I used a mass of complex data held by Sport England and others to calculate the square metres of public swimming pool space per 100,00 residents available in every part of England. I then used this to identify and map the country’s ‘swimming pool deserts’. This work uncovered vast regional disparities: for example, the North East had less than a third of the public pool space found in the South East, equivalent to 56 Olympic-size swimming

Impact reached:

My article was the top story on JPIMedia’s national site NationalWorld that day.

I also made my findings and a template story available to the local and regional titles in the JPIMedia group. Localised versions of the project were was carried by many of these titles. 

This sparked substantial debate both on social media and on newspapers’ letters pages.

For example, The Yorkshire Post splashed on the story and used it to kick off a campaign calling for better swimming provision. 

They secured an op-ed from Swim England’s chief executive Jane Nickerson, talking about the importance of access to swimming facilities so children can learn this life-saving skill at a young age.

They carried their own follow-ups on subsequent days, reporting on a spate of teenagers drowning and revealing that 96% of children were not meeting swimming lesson targets set by Swim England.

My work and the resulting Yorkshire Post campaign were also featured on the website HoldTheFrontPage.

Techniques/technologies used:

I had a hunch that some parts of the country were seeing large municipal pools close, with smaller community pools opened in their place. On paper the number of pools in an area would stay the same but in reality the provision would be substantially lessened, particularly with the loss of diving pools or other specialist facilities.

For this reason, to find ‘swimming pool deserts’ I wanted to calculate the square metres of public pool space per 100,000 residents in every area, rather than simply the number of pools. I also wanted to look at the facilities offered at each site.

I used Microsoft Excel to gather the information I wanted from a vast selection of open data held by Sport England, as well as population data from the Office for National Statistics. This involved combining many datasets into one using vlookups.

I then ran a series of calculations, such as using data on the width and length of pools to work out the square metres of public pool space per 100,000 residents in each local authority area and region of England.

I mapped my findings using Flourish – creating a choropleth map showing the swimming pool provision in each local authority area of the UK.

I also created a ‘points map’ showing the location of each public diving pool, which demonstrated how sparsely these were spread in some parts of England. Hovering over the points would display the age of the facility as well, with ageing pools a key concern for campaigners.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The data held by Sport England on swimming pools was difficult to find. To start with, I asked Sport England’s press team for data on swimming pools and they said the organisation didn’t have any. My own searches proved otherwise.

Sport England has a series of huge datasets on all sporting facilities in England, both publicly and privately owned. Information is spread out over a series of spreadsheets – for example, addresses were in one file and size of swimming pools in another.

I spent a long time combining these datasets to create the spreadsheet I wanted, listing the names and locations of each public swimming pool as well as the number and type of pools, facilities offered and so on. 

The data needed substantial cleaning. Deciding what constituted a ‘public’ pool was also tricky. For example, should I include school pools open to the wider public for a limited time each week? I had to consider different aspects of the data – ownership of the site, terms of access for the public (e.g. pay-to-swim or members only) and opening times to decide whether I thought the pool could be branded ‘public’.

What can others learn from this project?

Firstly, not to assume press teams know about the data held by their organisation.

Journalists can learn that they can create their own metrics to determine whether provision of a certain service is fairly distributed across the country or society – they don’t need to rely on the metrics used by official bodies if they don’t think these are the fairest measures.

In this case, I first thought up my ideal metric – square metres of public swimming pool space per 100,000 residents – and then set about finding the data I needed from an array of open data sources to work this out. This allowed me to discover that some areas of the country were indeed being incredibly poorly served.


Please note: I have selected ‘small’ for organisation size as I work within a NationalWorld team consisting of fewer than 35 journalists. However, I made my work available to the wider JPIMedia network which has more than 35 journalists. This also applies to my previous submission.

Project links: