Plug pulled on free swimming

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FREE swimming in Wigan’s pools is to be axed.

The widely-praised scheme for under 16s and over-65s will hold its final sessions at the beginning of next month.

Council chiefs together with bosses at NHS Ashton, Leigh and Wigan have taken the decision to “reluctantly” withdraw funding for the provision provided by Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust (WLCT) in the borough’s leisure centres.

It was originally launched in a blaze of national headlines in 2005, with the aim of increasing levels of physical activity in young people.

The scheme produced good results over the first year and was extended to older people 12 months later.

But in 2010 the newly elected Government cancelled the national free swimming programme for under-16s and over-60s which meant the borough lost £274,500 funding.

Two months later the council agreed to retain free swimming for under-16s during the school holidays and also for pensioners.

Now, research carried out by Salford University has found that swimming numbers have not increased by the levels required to have a positive impact on child obesity levels.

Similar national research also shows that cost is not the main barrier to people swimming in public pools.

Although 18 million free swims were taken during the first year of the national scheme, around 83 per cent of those aged 60 and over and 73 per cent of those aged 16 and under would have gone swimming anyway, even if they had to pay for it.

The initiative currently costs £106,000 to run, funded equally between Wigan Council and the NHS.

Council Cabinet Leisure member Coun Chris Ready said that ending the scheme had been “a very difficult decision.”

But he said the council had to make sure all resources were targeted towards the most vulnerable people in society, especially in the light of government funding reductions.

Evidence from Salford University found that total pool visits increased by 15.1 per cent in the year of the introduction of universal free swimming.

However this was not maintained in the second year which showed a decrease of 12.1 per cent which was similar to the experience at other UK free swimming programmes.

Rate of swimming participation from the borough’s most deprived communities was the same as for across the borough as a whole. And those people who used the free swim offer did not swim regularly.

Coun Ready said: ”Together with our NHS partners we continued to fund free swimming despite the government withdrawing the nationally funded scheme in 2010.

“We are very proud that we were the first authority in England to fund such a scheme, but evidence from recent years shows that the people we wanted to encourage to swim were not making use of it as much as we would’ve liked.

“In recent years, we have provided excellent new sports facilities such as at the Wigan Life Centre and Leigh Sports Village and we have a new strategy in place to help support community groups, sports clubs and other initiatives, ensuring that people have lots of opportunities to be fit and active.”