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Francis Davis is a founder of www.cathedralinnovationcentre.com, an academic and an entrepreneur

It all began with a walk around the circumference of the Isle of Wight – but I have splashed on since then by water. My aim is to cover 101 miles across the canal-like pathways of the public swimming pools of each of England’s counties to raise funds for the veterans’ mental health charity, Combat Stress.  This week, I met with a sheep-farming Conservative council leader in Cumbria. I will shortly be joined by 40 sixth form students for a leg that will involve taking over two pools in the dawn hours in Stockport and Hazel Grove, near Manchester.  And in the process I am learning something that might be really important to our country.

For example, while JB Priestley’s English Journey began on an omnibus passing by Winchester, mine is unfolding before me the variety of arrangements that now nestle within what some still see as our normative welfare state: In Ulverston in Cumbria, the swimming pool is run by a charitable trust. On Jersey, SERCO have control. In West Leeds, the community have turned the pool into a co-operative, and even staged an under-water showing of Jaws the Movie – as well as a classical concert afloat, to raise funds. In Kent, I visited pools owned by arms-length council management companies, and on Dartmoor another that draws in water from the local river. From older people queuing to swim a mile in the North West at six am to clubs gearing up for serious training in Derby and Wiltshire, the key to the success of a pool seems ownership seems not to be ownership but, rather, innovative, outward-looking and customer-centred staff and volunteers.

Talking to those afflicted by severe mental ill health, one sees a similar picture. A depressed ex-squaddie lamented the lack of fit between his NHS prosthetic limbs and his own body.  A distraught couple reported the chaos they had found on the wards of a well-known private hospital when their child had been temporarily housed there, while the NHS scoured its networks for a bed. The clinical care the child subsequently received in a specialist NHS unit run by a Foundation Trust was second to none.  But even here, they said, one could predict how safe their child would be on the unit in direct relation to the pressures that England football matches, golden jubilees, maternity leave and summer holidays, put on the availability of staff especially in the evenings and weekends.

The leadership and management question has impacts well beyond our health system.  In 2011, almost 350 children were llocked up in police cells because they were so unwell as to require assessment by a psychiatrist.  They had not broken the law, but had simply been sectioned as very poorly under the Mental Health Act.  One father explained to me that in the absence of out of hours social workers, the police arrested his acutely distressed son as the only option. The local police station was full, though – so the father and son spent the night together miles away in a police cell while the more usual clientele crashed around next door.  A mother in Hampshire explained that she had been specifically advised by day time social services to ‘ring the police for cover at night’.  Meanwhile, her employer inadvertently admitted to me  that the reason he was selecting her for redundancy was because she was always ‘’sciving’’ (to attend the clinic seventy miles away in which the NHS had finally found her frail daughter a room and from which she longed for a visitor). And even before the announcement of cuts to ship- building in Hampshire, veterans who yearn for jobs are over-represented among the county’s mentally ill.

Much as swimming can lift mood, improve well-being and enhance health, listening to some of these stories one could not help thinking that an even broader and creative pooling of budgets across the MOD, local authorities, health and the police might unlock some new solutions.  Nowhere might this be better explored than in the cracks between which fall our ex-servicemen and our kids with severe mental ill health. Not only would such a pooling save money in the long run, but it would ease the immediate trauma of individuals and families caught up in the headlights of anguish just when the rigidity of the mass produced welfarism with which many of us grew up is at risk of being inflexibly and literally lethal. No wonder the UK’s Rotary Clubs have been especially supportive of our appeal.

And so a swim around England has convinced me that any government whose manifesto gives up on the detail of local knowledge, on decentralised support, and on the drive towards public service reform is one that has lost something crucial in its attention to what really lifts local well-being and wider recovery. For from the farms and pools of Cumbria to the cliffs and beaches of the Isle of Wight, I have met local councillors and activists, entrepreneurs and carers who know that if Whitehall and Westminster can let veterans and children fall through the hands of the system as it stands today, the governing class will almost certainly lose any ability to speak for the nation as a whole.  “Perhaps”, one Dorset clergyman asked as he reflected on the role of our national institutions, “they could all do with a swim and a walk too?”

The giving page for the English Counties Swim -101 is https://my.give.net/counties101

4 comments for: Francis Davis: What I am learning amidst the swimming pools of England

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