Aug 30

Government scraps free swimming – when obesity rates are growing

Reading Time: 4 mins

At the beginning of the school holidays I was delighted to discover my local leisure centre was running a Government led scheme of free swimming for children. I was a tad miffed that I hadn’t known about it, and that the scheme had been running for over a year as part of the Labour Government’s plan to get Britain fit for 2012. Under the ‘Swim4Life’ plan, as it’s called, under 16’s and over 60’s get free swimming. Hurrah! What a good idea.

We’ve gone twice a week this summer, with a car full of children. My daughter’s changed from being a nervous doggy paddler, to having confidence and skill in the water. The pool has never been full, and it’s been good to see youngsters who were clearly overweight and unfit, making the most of this scheme and burning off some energy – and calories.  I’d never seen ‘moobs’ on young boys before – and it was a worrying site to see chaff marks on the wobbly legs of primary school kids.

I thought the ‘Swim4Life’ free swimming scheme  was  a fantastic incentive to get children to exercise and to get them off the streets.  So I was disappointed, if not surprised, to hear that the scheme is now to be scrapped as part of the Government’s cost cutting measures.  Hugh Robertson, the Sports and Olympic Minister, says that the scheme was considered too expensive to continue and has been axed as part of £73 million savings needed to be made by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

What? I’m sorry – but someone in that department needs to talk to someone in the Heath Department. Mr Robertson may not have thought any further than this being a great freebie treat for children and families that has to be sacrificed to help the country’s deficit. But consider this. Our NHS is spending over a million pounds every hour treating diabetes. Diabetes is on the increase alongside rising obesity rates.  And they are connected.  Our children are spending too much time in front of computers , and eating too much junk.  Cutting the free swim scheme won’t make people pay for the service instead. They just won’t go.

I know that because I’m one of them. And it’s not to make a protest. It’s cost. As a single mum who has never had any child support,  swimming is a treat for my child.  For swimming to be effective as a fitness regime, you have to go regularly. With car parking costs, that makes it over £12 a visit for a family of four at our local centre.  That’s more than a KFC Bargain Bucket  or a couple of Big Macs and 2 Happy Meals.  For the most affected groups the scheme is aimed at – those on lower incomes – this becomes an inaccessible, once in a while treat.  Free swimming or KFC and MacDonalds?. Hmmm…..

Encouraging children to exercise isn’t easy. Grown ups aren’t that good at it either in many cases, and I hold my hand up there. As a single mum I can’t go to a gym – my exercise activities have to include my child – and this is the only thing locally we can do together.

I totally understand the Government’s need to make drastic cutbacks to save money, but exactly how is this going to save money? The swimming pools are already there.  The lifeguards are already hired. On our visits I’ve seen dads out with toddlers, teaching them to swim. The toddlers go free anyway and the dads pay anyway. For pensioners,  and for the over 60’s, free swimming is a great idea to help keep them active and healthy – and less of a burden, surely,  on the NHS.

I’ve never seen our local pool full.  In fact the four – only four – single showers in the changing rooms are usually queue free. Our local centre is a £15 million new-build, paid for with our – my –  taxes.   This weekend, mid-morning Sunday, I counted 26 people in the pool. Five of those were wearing swim nappies so were freebies anyway. Only about 8 of the swimmers were under 16 and there were no over 60’s there at all. When I was a child, Sunday morning sessions at the pool were packed. Dad would take us while mum prepared the roast lunch.

The people making the most of this free swim scheme are the people who can’t afford to pay, and in many cases, the kids who need to shift some weight.  Start charging and they’ll just stop using the facility. Most of my friends on average incomes tend to use the town’s more luxurious and elite Esporta facility, which charges memberships for swimming and gym use.  The council’s pool is there for the rest of us.  So I’m really puzzled as to how the ‘research’ quoted by Hugh Robertson was compiled and where the savings are going to come from? The pools will still be there, still serviced and heated and still staffed. The vending machines at the leisure centre won’t make as much money though and the car park ticket machine will be a little quieter.  So someone will make some losses there, along with the companies who sell the goggles, the armbands and the advertising space.

There won’t be a flurry on the tills and the young freebie swimmers suddenly start to pay – they’ll just go back to the sofa and TV with a bucket of chicken.

©Jane Green


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