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Medway MPs call on council to reverse decision to end free swimming for children and the elderly

Three MPs have combined forces in a bid to persuade a local authority to re-think “short-sighted” plans to end free swimming for children and the elderly.

Medway Council's cabinet members have announced a decision to scrap free swimming for the under-16s and over-60s as part of a belt-tightening exercise to balance its budget.

Free swimming for kids is to be cut
Free swimming for kids is to be cut

The move has already sparked protests including an online petition calling for its reversal launched by the Lib Dems and signed by more than 260 people.

Now Tracey Crouch, Kelly Tolhurst and Rehman Chisti, the Conservative MPs for Chatham and Aylesford, Rochester and Strood, and Gillingham and Rainham respectively, have written to the Labour leader of Medway Council, Vince Maple, telling him he must rethink.

They said: “Up and down the country local authorities, of whatever political colour, are facing financial challenges and we respect and understand that Medway Council is no different.

“However, as your three local MPs, we wanted to outline one very specific area of concern and that is your proposal to scrap free swimming for under 16s and over 60s.

“Swimming is hugely beneficial to health and wellbeing. For those with mobility problems, swimming can be the only form of exercise, particularly those in the older age range.”

Medway Council is having to make budget cuts
Medway Council is having to make budget cuts

“It is a low impact activity that improves cardiovascular health, bone density and improved mental health.

“For younger swimmers, it provides the benefits of improved physical and mental health but can also be in lieu of expensive alternative forms of sport and exercise.

“Plus, swimming teaches important skills which given our proximity to water, could help save a life.

“We are all aware of the health challenges that the local population face.

“Medway’s childhood obesity rates are higher than the national average, as are deaths from respiratory disease, diabetes prevalence, deaths from all causes and depression prevalence.”

The MPs said: “Sport England’s Active Lives statistics show that already 14% of children in Medway swim regularly compared with 26 in England as a whole, which is a huge gap.”

Why would you cut support when you have such a big gap to close?

“Why would you cut support when you have such a big gap to close?”

The MPs suggested the cut would have a “small” budgetary saving in the short term, but would cost the public purse more in the long term.

They added: “This cut will disproportionally hit the poorest in our constituencies.

“We urge you to reconsider this particular measure in your budget proposals.”

Speaking to Kent Online, Ms Crouch, a former sports minister who recently announced she is stepping down at the next election, said: “I fully understand that councils are facing financial pressures.”

“Medway is not unique in this, but scrapping free swimming is short-sighted.

MP Tracey Crouch labelled the decision to axe free swimming ‘short-sighted’
MP Tracey Crouch labelled the decision to axe free swimming ‘short-sighted’

“It is a small saving with a huge consequence for the physical and mental wellbeing of people in the Towns, and will only expand the already big and worrying gap in swimming participation.”

The budget proposals have yet to be endorsed by the full council which meets to decide the issue tomorrow (February 29).

Responding to the MPs, on Cllr Maple’s behalf, Cllr Harinder Mahil, the Portfolio Holder for Heritage, Culture and Leisure, said: “We are in complete agreement with all of the positive health and social benefits you have outlined which free-swimming provides the residents we were elected to represent.

“As we are in complete agreement over this, we suggest you write to the relevant Government Departments and ask for this provision to be universally rolled out across the whole country.

“Such a scheme was previously put in place by the last Labour Government, to cement the legacy of our successful bid to host the Olympic Games.”

Rehman Chisti MP
Rehman Chisti MP

“Asides from all the other social and health benefits for the wider community, this would have also helped raise our next generation of Michael Jamiesons and Rebecca Adlingtons who won medals for our country at these historic games.

“But before they had even taken place, one of your first acts as MPs for Medway for two of you – Tracey and Rehman – was to vote to scrap this free swimming provision in your first emergency budget, with your ministers claiming, ‘it was not good value’.

“As you are well aware, Medway Council is in a grave situation in relation to its financial sustainability.

“Unfortunately, providing a concession for under 16s and over 60s would not be viewed as a priority by your Government’s Levelling Up, Housing and Community Department.

“In order to make the case for qualifying for Exceptional Financial Support, we have had to show we have taken all reasonable steps to close the projected gap in our forthcoming budget.”

Cllr Harinder Mahil
Cllr Harinder Mahil

“The reason we find ourselves needing to make these regrettable decisions is the systemic underfunding of Local Government over the last 14 years.

“In many cases, this has reduced the ability of many local authorities to offer leisure and cultural provisions full stop.

“We would like to take this time to remind you that as the three MPs for Medway, you have repeatedly voted for cuts to local government funding. The inevitable place we have arrived at is that things we believe a local authority should be able to offer, like full concessions to access socially owned leisure facilities are no longer possible.

“Despite the challenges, we are keen to build on our family swimming offer, which is why each sports centre will be developing timetables supporting it, including additional concessions for children and young people being able to swim for as little as £1 when accompanied by a fee-paying adult.

“We will be looking to develop this in time for the Easter holiday period.”

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