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Free Swimming: An End or a Beginning?

Free Swimming: An End or a Beginning?
December 15, 2009

The just published November/December 2009 issue of Australasian Leisure Management includes a feature on the free swimming program run by the Manukau City Council (New Zealand).

The article, Swimming for Nothing, by Aimee McCallum, explains Manukau's free pools initiative.

Since 1974, Manukau City Council has provided free public access to its pools, putting up to $7 million of ratepayers' money towards running the facilities each year.

Managed by Manukau Leisure Services, a City Council-controlled organisation, aquatic facilities in Manukau are open seven days a week throughout the year. Collectively these pools are visited by over 1.8 million people each year while Manukau Leisure also provides special programs in learning to swim, water safety, aquarobics, lifeguard training, and popular Summer Fun Days.

However, Manukau's free pools initiative could come to an end as part of plans that would see the Council merged into the new Auckland 'supercity'. The 'supercity', which will see Auckland's eight local authorities and council controlled organisations merged into a unitary city-wide council, has led New Zealand Olympic legend and long-serving Manukau City Council member Sir John Walker to express that free swimming will be abandoned once the new city administration is implemented.

As recently reported on this website, Walker explained, "Manukau is the only city in the country that has free swimming pools ⦠I don't know what's going to happen to the supercity, but free swimming pools for the whole of Auckland, probably not?."

In Australia, councils on the NSW South Coast have allowed free access to their pools in the past. However, when Wollongong City Council developed new facilities at the Beaton Park and Lakeside Leisure Centres in the past decade, charges were introduced while, as recently as September,

Shellharbour City Council ended its long-held tradition of free access to pools.

By contrast, the UK Government has been operating an initiative for all of Englandâs public swimming pools to be free to use by 2012.

Planned as a legacy of the London Olympics, with the aim of getting two million people more active by the time of the 2012 Games, the scheme began in April this year with swimming sessions in England made available for free for those aged 60 and over and those aged 16 and under.

In Wales, the Principality's assembly already funds free swimming for under-16s during the school holidays and for over-60s at other times.

Local authorities in England are to get $145 million a year in return for scrapping charges, and a further $105 million for refurbishing and maintaining pools. As a result, four out of five councils have signed up to provide free swimming for the over-60s while over half of councils are offering the programs to the under 16s.

Jointly funded by five UK Government departments, the scheme is being delivered in partnership with local authorities, the Local Government Association, Sport England and the Amateur Swimming Association.

Quarterly figures just released by the UK Government have shown that a total of 5.9 million free swims were taken across the UK between July and September, compared with 4.4 million during the first quarter, with more than 250 local authorities currently signed up to the scheme.

With past UK local government initiatives such as competitive tendering and unitary council reorganisations having been adopted by Governments in Australia and New Zealand, industry insiders are speculating that the 'free swimming' concept could be adopted by Australasian Governments.

Commenting on the potential for 'free swimming' in Australia, industry consultant Martin Sheppard suggested that "money from the Federal Government's planned Healthy Communities initiative could fund such a program, as could reallocated sports funding if the Crawford Report's recommendations are adopted."



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