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Sport Wales: Free swimming fund needs ‘radical change’

Children enjoying swimming Image copyright Getty Images

The free swimming scheme for children and pensioners is “no longer fit for purpose” and needs radical change, according to a review.

The independent report for the Sports Wales organisation said the scheme only costs half the annual £3m Welsh Government grant that funds it.

But it found that after leisure budget cuts councils rely on the income.

The Welsh Government said it looked forward to Sport Wales’ recommendations on “strengthening this provision”.

Free swimming in Wales was first introduced in 2003 providing free sessions for those aged under 16 and over 60 at certain times such as school holidays and weekends.

The scheme is managed by Sport Wales, which promotes and develops sport.

The review found:

  • The scheme had increased participation in its early years and 10 million free sessions were taken between 2008 and 2017 at a cost of around £30m.
  • The case for free swimming was “compelling” because it was a popular sport which enabled people to enjoy other aquatic activities and was an especially valuable form of exercise for disabled and ageing people.
  • Following a decline in the number of sessions provided by councils for young people, the actual cost of the programme could be halved to £1.5m per year.
Image caption Councils have become “increasingly reliant” on the free swimming funding

The author of the report, Clive Grace, said it “will require a lot of thinking through” about how to change the grant when councils have become reliant on it.

The chief executive of Sport Wales, Sarah Powell, said she empathised with councils and wanted to keep the funding at the same level. However, she added they would consider broadening what the fund is to be used for.

Sport Wales will put forward a number of ways to change the scheme to the Welsh Government by the end of the year.

A spokesman for the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said free swimming is a “longstanding and much valued scheme”, but accepted authorities have become increasingly reliant on the grant because of overall budget cuts.

He added that any changes to the free swimming fund would inevitably impact on overall leisure services.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said “free swimming is an important policy that underpins our ambition of creating a healthier, more active Wales” and they were looking forward to receiving Sport Wales’ recommendations.

‘Don’t forget us’

Pensioners enjoying a free session in Swansea praised the benefits of the sport, including stress relief from difficult life events such as divorce and family illness.

Marlene Stanton is 78 and has been using the free swimming sessions for four years.

She had to take a break to have a hip replacement, but after six months back in the pool she is getting her confidence and energy back.

“I would miss it tremendously… it’s [something] we really look forward to,” she said.

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