September 16, 2008

Anger at High Cost of Free Swim

By Brian Dooks

The Government is initially offering councils a grant based on the percentage population of each group within their areas but the authorities say its introduction would put a strain on budgets and other services.Hambleton and Harrogate say the financial implications may be too great to allow them to be involved. The current suggested grant allocations for over-60s alone will jointly cost them at least 73,000 each year in lost revenue."On the face of it this scheme seems a great idea get all the over-60s exercising by swimming for free," said the leader of Harrogate Borough Council, Mike Gardner, who speaks for all the district and borough councils in North Yorkshire."But for those councils that already have a high percentage of this age group coming into their pools that will mean lost income. Hambleton stands to lose 53,000 a year because of the high number of existing over-60 users that will suddenly not have to pay."And for those that do take it up, what happens when this grant disappears after two years who is going to foot the bill for all these free swims or are we suddenly going to have to withdraw the scheme?"It is the view of all the councils in North Yorkshire that this scheme whilst a great idea in principle has been ill thought out."They are seeking guarantees that the grant will cover all their costs and that it will continue after the first two years.Craven, Hambleton, Harrogate, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough and Selby have expressed interest in accepting the grants but with 'reservations'.In the case of Hambleton and Harrogate the councils have informed the Government that it is conditional upon the grant receiving matching costs so that there is no shortfall. If the grant is not increased, Harrogate and Hambleton may withdraw.Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burham, announced government plans to invest 140m in free swimming for the over-60s and under-16s to ensure a lasting legacy from the 2012 Olympics.A further offer for the under-16s is expected later this month for councils which express an interest in extending free swimming to that age group. All North Yorkshire authorities have said they would like to be considered.Coun Gardner said: "We welcome the recognition that sport and physical recreation and particularly swimming can help the physical well-being of people and their communities."We want to make it work but that will be difficult based on the current grants on offer and further concern over what is to happen at the end of the two years."Across the country indications are that the scheme will be a cost burden to local authorities. We have been given very little time to make a decision or to try to work with partners to look at alternative ways of making the scheme pay so supporting this initiative at this stage is difficult."Expectations have been raised by the government yet each council needs to consider the impact of the proposals based on its local facilities, charging structures and usage. Because this is a national scheme, over-60s will be able to swim for free at any pool introducing it and that could mean people crossing council boundaries to swim at different pools leading to even greater loss of income for some authorities.He added: "Having identified the resources for swimming we would have preferred to see each authority then being able decide how best to use the grant be it for free swims, lower priced swims or other physical activities so responding to individual local needs, not national notions."

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