Five years ago Bramley Baths was on the brink of closure. Now it’s in profit and other councils want to copy their blueprint for success. Neil Hudson met former Leeds West Labour MP John Battle, who helped kickstart the project
It’s hard to believe John Battle almost took a vow of silence in his 20s. At 66, he has more energy and enthusiasm than most people half his age and he is involved with a dizzying number of organisations and voluntary bodies, one of which is Bramley Baths.
Just over four years ago, the Grade II-listed building - the only remaining Edwardian bath house in Leeds - was earmarked for closure by the council on the grounds it was not making enough money. But some members of the local community refused to accept the baths, built in 1904, would just be abandoned, boarded up or turned into a branch of Tesco and John was at the centre of that movement.
Now, almost five years on, the baths is in profit, making over £60,000 last year and the management team are doing such a good job, Leeds City Council has just granted them a new 50 year lease.
“It means we can begin applying for Lottery grants,” explains John, who, despite being Leeds West Labour MP for 23 years (he retired in 2010), appears to be just as active in the community as he ever was, if not more so. “We have a new lease for another 50 years, which means it’s well run, financially sound, but we need to raise big money to do up the building. I don’t want it to end up a ruin and then have to rebuild it, we need a programme of steadily renewal and repair.”
They have plans to replace the glass roof, the boiler, to upgrade the changing rooms and showers, all of which should help keep it at the centre of community life. But their success has also drawn envious gazes from other councils.
What we did with the baths, you could do for a care home or any other public service, you just need to find the people to run it, like we have. Bramley Baths has proved this sort of thing can and does work.Former Leeds West Labour MP John Battle, chair of Bramley Baths
“I just came back from Shrewsbury last week, where they have 14 swimming pools, they wanted to know how we did it. There’s so much interest in us, in fact, we are thinking of holding a conference next year and inviting everyone to come to us. What we’ve done here is begin not with the building but the people, who I cannot praise enough for their imagination and enthusiasm.
“If it had been boarded up, that would have sent a message to the community, that the public sector is pulling out. At the same time, you are sucking some of the creative life out of the community and yet you can turn that inside out and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“It used to open from 9.30am-2pm, now it opens 7am-9pm, we have no more hours left in the day. I’ve been joking we’re going to build an extension upwards.”
In keeping with their unusual approach to social enterprise, they have just staged their latest annual general meeting, which they held in the pool (that is, in the water).
“It’s totally mad,” admits John. “We get all the paperwork done and then we go in the pool; it’s a dynamic AGM, our annual report is pictures of people having a good time.”
But he adds: “All the background facts and figures are there, we are really strong on safeguarding, good practise is drummed into everyone, we have to be better than any other organisation because of the dangers involved with water, we not amateurs playing at it but at the same time as following all the rules and regulations, you have to find a way so they don’t crush people’s spirit.
“Bramley Baths has been the most rewarding project I have been involved in throughout my whole career, we have a brilliantly committed board of volunteers that works well together.”
That’s saying something, because John’s has been long and varied. Born at St Luke’s Hospital, Bradford, he grew up in Batley Carr and went to school in Dewsbury before moving to Lancashire aged eight. When he was 11, he moved into a seminary to train as a Catholic priest.
“I did religion and scripture, but also in social action. It was very intense, getting up at 6am for meditation, maths at 7am, prayers morning, noon and night… if I’m honest, I got a bit burned out by it. I actually left to have a more reflective life and even considered joining a silent monastery but,” he smiles, “I realised I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”
Good job too, because when he came out of monastic training, he went to study English at the University of Leeds, which is where he met his wife, Mary, with whom he has three children (they also have five grandchildren).
“I never set out to be an MP but I was active in tenants and residents groups and I was asked to stand as a councillor in 1980. Prior to that I’d done research for the European Parliament on international development and set up Church Action on Poverty. In 1987, I stood against Michael Meadowcroft, who was a good MP. They used to say he reached the grassroots but that John Battle got into the cracks underneath. I had a great team.”
He did that for 23 years, helping steer the Minimum Wage Bill through the House of Commons (it was his first Private Members’ Bill when he became an MP) and even rose to become a minister of state (he is a member of the Privy Council, which earns him the title the Rt Hon).
“I got a phone call from Tony Blair one Friday night in 1999 - he asked me to go to Indonesia to help persuade the Indonesian government to let the UN in. I ended up in Jakarta and went to visit Xanana Gusmao, leader of the militant uprising, who was under house arrest. While I was with him, he said they were due to kill him the next day, but I told him to come to the embassy - I told the guards on the doors that I was from Britain and we had a tradition that if you have a cup of tea in someone’s house, you have to invite them back to your and they let us through. I’d phoned Robin Cook earlier and he said if I thought it was the right thing to do, do it. That’s how he ended up in our embassy.
“The next thing I got a knock at the door at 7am from the Indonesian foreign minister, who took me to see a very irate President Habibie, who wanted to know why I had stolen his prime enemy and how big was our standing army and so on… I didn’t know what to do but somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d read he was involved with Frank Whittle during work on the jet engine in Germany. Once I said that, everything changed. It was the spark he needed, he talked for 20 minutes about the jet engine, I smiled and made the right noises… the following week, he let the UN in.”
Xanana Gusmao went on to become the first prime minister of East Timor, which gained independence in 2002. John left politics in 2010 but one could argue he’s busier now than ever. He jokes: “I was going to the library the other day and Mary shouted after me to look up the word ‘retire’.”
Aside from being chairman of Bramley Baths, St George’s Crypt, Pro-Chancellor of Leeds Trinity College, and being heavily involved with Bramley Credit Union, West Leeds Debt Forum,
St Vincent’s Centre, New Wortley Community Centre (where he runs a men’s walking group), he’s also a Fellow of Blackfriars, Oxford, a link worker at Armley Jail with West Yorkshire Community Chaplaincy Project and is heavily involved with social action group Leeds Citizens (and those are only the ones he can remember off the top of his head).
“The key to anything is whethter you can form working relationships. I’m a great fan of Samuel Beckett, who said his favourite word was ‘perhaps’, which was all about possibilities. My favourite is ‘encourage’. We use too much criticism in a negative way today, I’m not prepared to write anyone off. Projects like Bramley Baths come from the people, I’m a big fan of localising and regionalising services and ploughing the money back in, rather than to some man in Berkshire so he can ride round in a big car. What we did with the baths, you could do for a care home or any other public service, you just need to find the people to run it, like we have.
“Bramley Baths has proved this sort of thing can and does work and people are now interested in how we did it - even the council are interested - and we want more Bramley people to come forward to give us their help.”
FACTFILE - THOSE WHO HELP MAKE IT A SUCCESS
Long standing board members
Rt Hon John Battle – Chair
Fran Graham – Secretary
Bill Graham – Treasurer
Liz Wigley – Vice Chair
David Harries – Board member
Laura Sheard – Board member
Coun Caroline Gruen – Co-opted Board member (Leeds City Council representative)
Newly appointed board members at this year’s AGM (26/9/2017)
Tracy Basu – Chief Executive
Courtney Harrison – Operations Manager