HARROGATE council has banned men-only sessions at its historic Turkish Baths after reports of "inappropriate behaviour" - as officials admit covering up the incidents to protect the spa town's reputation.
The North Yorkshire town's Turkish Baths have offered single-sex sessions, as well as mixed sessions, since they opened back in 1897. They are one of only seven Victorian baths still in existence.
Harrogate Council announced last month that it would be ending the all-male sessions in January, blaming finances. But a councillor has now admitted covering up complaints about the antics of some bathers - saying she didn't want to ruin the town's good name.
Cabinet member for culture, Coun Caroline Bayliss said the authority had been forced to act following repeated allegations from members of the public, stretching back several years.
She said: "It was the two items taken together.
"I can defend my decision entirely on commercial grounds and I would far prefer to do so than sully the reputation of Harrogate.
"We have unfortunately had complaints from other male users of the Turkish Baths.
"These are problems that are very difficult for our staff to deal with over a period of a number of years."
She said the problems related to repeated instances of "inappropriate behaviour in a public place", and that the baths employed a largely female staff.
Coun Bayliss said she had become aware of the issue in June or July this year, shortly after being appointed as cabinet member for culture.
She immediately ordered a review, which reported recently and announced the closure of the service in January 2012.
The councillor decided to cover up the real reasons behind the decision and said it was her responsibility to make the popular spa town an attractive tourist destination.
She said: "My job is to uphold the reputation of Harrogate and that I will do my damnedest to do.
"I don't think it's particularly good publicity."
Coun Bayliss has insisted that the men-only sessions were uneconomical. She said: "We should run it as efficiently as we can and make what money we can, and the men-only sessions are very badly-attended.
"I'm sorry about the break with tradition - I'm one for upholding traditions - but we have to make sure the Turkish Baths is running as efficiently as possible.
"On commercial grounds, it is simply that, but there was this other problem."
In November, male users of the baths accused the council of sexism over its decision.
At the time, the authority explained its position by saying: "The gentlemen-only sessions have a traditional low attendance - in fact the three a week we hold now is a reduction on what we used to hold.
"The ladies and mixed sessions have a much higher rate of attendance. Like all businesses faced with the difficult economic climate, we have to look at our business model to get the best return."
The Turkish Baths are one of Harrogate's most popular attractions. Users on tourism website TripAdvisor describe them as a "fantastic facility", "the perfect place to unwind" and "a wonderful experience", though several criticise the decision to stop men-only sessions.
In the past month, the Turkish Baths, which were originally called the Royal Baths and were extended in the late-1930s, have been named one of the world's best spas in Good Housekeeping, and the best in the UK by Spa Travel.
Harrogate spa water contains iron, sulphur and common salt. The town became known as 'The English Spa' in the Georgian Era, after its waters were first discovered in the 16th century.
It is popular with visitors due to the Turkish Baths, RHS Harlow Carr gardens, Betty's Tea Rooms and its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales