Free gym membership for all Wigan army vets "costs too much"

Wigan Council has vowed to write to MPs to campaign for army veterans to get free gym membership – after rejecting the scheme.

The borough already has a scheme of free membership for serving military and for vets for 12 months after leaving active service but funding it indefinitely would “cost too much”, a cabinet meeting heard.

Coun Chris Ready, cabinet member for communities and neighbourhoods, said Coun James Paul Watson’s motion for permanent free gym membership for vets – submitted last year – was something the council could not afford.

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Coun James Paul Watson

According to current figures corroborated by the council, if this scheme was extended to the vets getting free gym memberships at the moment, it would cost the council £5,982 per year.

But, councillors fear that if even a small proportion of the 22,000 veterans in the borough take this free offer up, it could cost a fortune.

Coun Watson, who suffered a spinal injury in Afghanistan in 2010 and has nerve damage in both legs as a result, issued a letter to council cabinet members urging them to support his motion before the meeting.

“You’ve all seen the budgets we are facing at the moment and the unprecedented difficulties not only for this council but many across the country,” Coun Ready said. “In consultation with the leader we are going to retain the offer we have already got.

“We understand there are some difficulties after that 12-month period. One of the issues I’ve got is that only 19 people took up the offer of the free 12-month membership out of 22,000 vets which is quite concerning to me because we need to go out there and promote this.

“The figures shown in the report are on the numbers of 19, and if this went to the maximum it would cost us millions and it would be an unknown figure, which would be irresponsible with the budget. Even 10 per cent take-up would be a lot of money.

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“What I will say is that this is not just about money, it is about looking after our ex-servicemen. What I want to do is set something up myself with Coun Yvonne Klieve, and if Coun Watson wants to be involved in that and look at the scale of this then he can.

“I will sit down with Coun Watson and go through this stuff because I think we should write to Johnny Mercer (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) and ask him that this should be a national scheme and fund it that way.

"I think we should write to our MPs as well so I ask the leader to write to him about this.

“I don’t want this to be a political football, it is a bigger issue than that, it is a really important issue to us. We need to look in depth at this and if we could we would do it, but it is an unknown figure.”

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Coun Ready went on to say he wanted to look into why only 19 vets took up the 12 months offer and boost that number. He added that the link with gyms and NHS services for vets is a vital connection for those with injuries from active duty.

Council leader David Molyneux said he would be “happy” to write to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs on this matter. However, the plan to locally fund the scheme proposed by Coun Watson was refused.

The Atherton ward representative had previously called the plan to refuse this could ‘exacerbate PTSD and mental health issues’. He said previosuly: “There is a link between physical injuries and poor mental health, and I fear that by denying our veterans free access to rehabilitation that we may be in fact exacerbating PTSD and other mental health issues that veterans face, further burdening the NHS unnecessarily.

“This initiative should not be limited to Wigan Council but should be a national policy for all council run leisure facilities and I urge all greater Manchester Councils to follow Buy’s example.”

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As a veteran himself having given almost 20 years of his life to the army, has even started his own union – The Ex-Forces Union – to address this issue and provide better treatment of vets nationally.