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London's legacy luxuries face the chop

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Matt Slater | 20:19 UK time, Monday, 21 June 2010

One of my favourite quotes of recent years is Arsene Wenger's bemused reaction to the emergence of Britain as a swimming power at the 2008 Olympics.

"I didn't know the British were good at swimming," Wenger said after Rebecca Adlington led Team GB's swimmers to six medals in Beijing. "I've been in this country for 12 years and haven't seen a pool."

Wenger's powers of observation are not his strong point - he has not seen a foul by an Arsenal player since arriving in London - but he could be forgiven for missing Britain's swimming facilities, they are few and far between compared to his native France.

Which is why last week's news that the government was axing a scheme to provide free swimming for under-16s and over-60s was so disappointing: understandable, given the state of our finances, but disappointing.

Adlington celebrates Olympic gold with PattenWill this move hinder hopes of developing young stars to follow Adlington? Photo: Getty

It was also a very damp end for a scheme launched with such fanfare by former Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell in June 2008.

Back then this was just the beginning. Swimming would be free for all by the time of the London Olympics and a key plank in the much-trumpeted plan to use the 2012 Games as a tool to get Britain off the sofa and into sport.

The trumpeting continued last year, with ministers diving in to praise the scheme. Sir Terrence of Wogan was even moved to call it a "great idea than can only do good".

But countries in the red to the tune of £36,000 for every household in the land cannot afford do-gooding, particularly when most of the people who took advantage of the scheme apparently did not need subsidising.

Figures released by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport last week revealed that the initiative had paid for 18 million "free" swims during its first year but 83% of those aged over 60 and 73% of those under 16 said they would have gone swimming anyway and were happy to pay for it.

Did they mean it? I guess we'll never know. But I am sorry to see the end of an initiative that got 114,000 extra under-16s in a pool every month.

It was a point picked up on Monday by the Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins.

Noting that the pools in his constituency had recorded a 56% increase in usage, Goggins asked: "Where's the value in cutting a scheme that helps to keep (youngsters) healthy?"

It is a good question, and to be fair to the new Sport and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson he does not seem especially happy about it either.

"This is not a decision that gives me any pleasure," he said. "But with a crippling deficit to tackle and tough decisions to take, this has become a luxury we can no longer afford."

The real concern for him, however, is that this "tough decision" only saves his budget £5m.

Funding for the Free Swimming Programme comes from five different government departments (getting big-spenders like Education and Health to contribute to a sports initiative really was a good idea and should be repeated) and £100m of the total two-year allocation of £140m has already been spent.

So the saving here is more symbolic than real and his boss, Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, needs real savings to appease the coalition government's austerity police, which is why nobody in the wider sports family thinks this will be the end of it.

The County Sports Partnerships sponsored by central government lost their £6m funding last week and £27m was knocked off London 2012's previously ring-fenced £9.3bn budget last month.

There are fears a more painful raid on the Games' contingency cash will be announced by Chancellor George Osborne in his Budget on Tuesday but I think that's unlikely. Not impossible, though.

What is far more likely is a big shake-up of how sport is funded in this country after 2012. Broadly speaking, there will be a lot less money from the government's own coffers, a bit more from the National Lottery and the difference will be made up by cuts in overheads and "waste".

At present there are three main bodies in this space: UK Sport, Sport England (with equivalents in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and the Youth Sport Trust. UK Sport distributes money to elite sportsmen and women, Sport England is the agency for grassroots sport and the Youth Sport Trust deals with schools.

They all have different budgets and remits but there is some overlap, which is hardly surprising given the desire to create a "pathway" from amateur competition to the sharp end of elite sport.

Robertson, however, clearly sees some duplication of effort here.

In a speech earlier this month, the minister said he was pushing ahead with plans to bring the three bodies "under one roof while maintaining their separate roles and responsibilities".

At first I thought he meant this more metaphorically than literally - UK Sport and Sport England already have London offices (and they seem pretty full), while the Youth Sport Trust is an independent charity based in Loughborough.

But I am assured by people who know better that he does actually mean "under one roof".

Robertson thinks this move can happen in the medium term and it will save money. Money that can then be better targeted at meeting the government's inherited goal of getting one million people playing more sport by 2013.

The most recent figures show that just over seven million adults in England play some kind of sport (the definition is a little elastic) at least three times a week. That is up 700,000 since 2005 but still 800,000 short of the "million more" target that was set in 2007.

I have always felt that achieving London 2012's "participation legacy" would be a tall order, especially now that we cannot afford a relatively cheap and cheerful scheme like free swimming, but that does not mean we should not try.

Sport does not exist in a bubble so we are just going to have to do more with less. I wonder if Fabio Capello is willing to muck in too.

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  • Comment number 1.

    that's a awful idea, swimming to kids and over 60's are effecting people who need it most. my uncle has got cancer and goes swimming 4 of 7 days a week, it's about the only exercise he gets and it helps him good in shape. i've no idea whether or not he'll continue to pay but it just goes to complicate his way of life, he worked for over 20 years as a deputy head and teacher, with news of the cancer, he's just trying to do what he can

  • Comment number 2.

    One thing not mentioned is that this was going to end in March next year anyway so if it saves £5million in the short term then fine

  • Comment number 3.

    This move does seem rather petty given the sums involved: if it's a symbolic gesture, it's an extremely mean-spirited one. If it's just the tip of the iceburg then we can only be thankful that the NHS budget is ringfenced, as obesity ravages the nation's health unchecked.

    It could be argued that money spent on elite sport is a luxury, though one could also make the counter-argument that sporting success is good for the nation's sense of well-being, which is good for the economy, and that inspiring elite performances increase participation.

    Even then, there's no excuse or logical reason to cut funding for grass-roots sport. The benefit of sport to the physical and mental health of the nation is simply immeasurable. Well, at the moment it's immeasurable. We will be able to measure it very soon...

  • Comment number 4.

    What exactly is covered by the free swimming programme?

    I wouldn't mind subsidising structured activity such as children's swimming lessons or club swimming; however if we're talking about children just playing about in a pool, slight value though it may have, I wouldn't be too sad to see it go.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've never met anyone who has benefited from this scheme. Who was it available to, and where? I take my daughter swimming weekly and I would say the pool is at least half full of immigrants e.g. Poles, Germans, various others. It suggests to me that a swim is higher up their priority list than it is for the average Briton. Maybe if we built our swimming pools next to shopping centres we could get some spin off from our real national sport - shopping.

    Matt - I also have to say that was an unecessary cheap shot at Wenger in your article. You use him to introduce an article on swimming and then drop your journalistic standards to ignorant football pub talk.

  • Comment number 6.

    #4 - the content of free swimming has been part of the problem, particularly U16s. It's turned into a bit of a free for all, with little structured activity and no joined up pathways, to get kids engaged, and with sustained participation, members of clubs etc.

    #2 - you're right that this only ever had a limited run, but the implementation of the scheme - retimetabling of pools, distribution of membership cards, collection of details from participants etc - has been far from straightforward, so it seems like an awful lot of effort for not a lot of gain if the plug is pulled now.

  • Comment number 7.

    Morning all, thanks for the comments. Some replies from me:

    redrummy (1)- I'm really sorry to hear that. I suppose one crumb of comfort in the DCMS research was that 90% of the people who took advantage of the scheme said they would continue with swimming. I hope your uncle does too.

    fatdeano (2) - You're right, the scheme's first phase was funded until March 2011. I made a reference to a "total two-year allocation of £140m" and provided a link to the story with the March '11 date. And the overall saving to the government is actually £40m, that was what I meant by £100m having been spent already. The £5m refers to DCMS's part of the unspent cash. But I agree, in the wider financial context every little bit counts. I just think it's a shame!

    Tim (3) - We're very much on the same wavelength. It's not all bad news, though.

    Elite sport has received a huge boost in public funding over the last decade or so. First through the advent of the National Lottery and then with direct subsidy from Exchequor funds. I would argue that this was long overdue and has brought great results for the entire country in terms of national pride, the creation of role models and the development of the sports sector. But I would also argue that if the entire country is going to be asked to tighten its belt a bit elite sport can do so too. It's starting from a much better place than it was.

    On the subject of grassroots sport, however, there is still much, much more to be done. Compared to countries of a similar size and wealth, our PUBLIC sports infrastructure (facilities, coaches, amateur leagues etc) is pretty mediocre. There are lots of different reasons for this and I would be here all day debating them. But there are signs that things are getting a bit better and Sport England is finally on the right track. Hugh Robertson appears to have acknowledged that and is actually talking about giving sport more lottery money (perhaps as much as £50m a year) to replace Exchequor cash and continue the efforts it is making to boost mass participation sport.

    There is one other thing to add on this. When DCMS decided to cut the Free Swimming Programme it said it had not made up its mind on the £25m it had set aside for improving our pools. I hope they don't cut that because that really is the very least government could do for what remains our most popular mass participation sports activity. You could easily spend £250m on our pools and still not impress Arsene Wenger but £25m is a start.

    felixtzu (4) - Good question and one that raises a few more. I think it would be fair to say that this scheme's implementation has been a bit patchy both in terms of how many local authorities (it was up to them to get involved or not) actually took part and then what they did with the scheme if they signed up. Off the top of my head, about 2/3 of local authorities eventually joined the programme (the others felt the subsidy wasn't big enough and they would lose money). Some of those embraced it and threw their own resources at it to maximise its benefits, whereas others didn't, for whatever reason. Anecdotally, I have heard both scenarios. Now, I would argue that getting kids through the door is of some benefit. Yes, I would prefer it if there was then some plan to encourage them to actually swim as opposed to indulge in heavy petting, top bombing and so on, but that does require proper engagement with swimming's national governing body, schools and local authorities. Proper joined-up thinking! Money (for more coaches etc) would help, but we really do need to work together more.

    ooozzell (5) - I find it quite funny that you accuse me of a "cheap shot that descends to ignorant pub talk" in a post where you manage to make a sweeping statement about "immigrants", followed by a this-country-has-gone-to-the-dogs joke about our national sport. If you're saying my Wenger joke isn't the best/most original in the world, fair enough. But if you're saying I'm not allowed to make a mild joke in a blog about sport but you are....well, that doesn't strike me as particularly fair.

    Quicksingle (6) - Sounds like we've heard similar things and I think you make a very good point with your second remark. I wonder if any local authorities will decide to continue with free swimming even without government's subsidy? But as I was trying to explain in my answer to felixtu, many local authorities just lacked the bodies/know-how to actually do something with these extra swimmers. Perhaps that would have come in time, though?

    Right, that's enough for now. Cheerio

  • Comment number 8.

    Having worked in the public sector for over a decade, I can honestly say that it won't be hard to cut many millions simply by tackling wastage, greed and laziness. One of my previous employers, when moving offices, removed the 20 odd 42 in LCD screens, and rather than transport them half a mile up the road DISPOSED OF THEM and then BOUGHT NEW ONES.

    Let alone the cost of computers and monitors thrown away.

    As far as the free swimming, well if the information is correct that the people who took it up would have happily paid for it otherwise, then it was a waste of £5m.

    As usual, the difference is between one approach to create a nanny state (which has run the country into incredible debt, and the hard workers have to pay for the lazy) vs an approach to create a "get off your couch and do it yourself" state where the lazy doll-claiming people suffer.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice blog! Keep up the good work!

    ooozzzelll got burned!

  • Comment number 10.

    It's only a small saving, but the same rules apply as always. With a limited pot of money, would you rather have free swimming for people who can pay for it anyway, or would you rather have home care for elderly and disabled people?

  • Comment number 11.

    Matt - in your post No.7 you have accused me of "making sweeping statements about immigrants" in my post No.5. I don't think you have read my comment properly. I may have made a sweeping statement about the British, but I have simply made an observation about immigrants, and one that is complimentary to them.

    I'm upset by that, and whilst I may dress up my comments as light hearted I think you might find there is more depth to them than you first realise.

  • Comment number 12.

    Thanks for the reply Matt. I think we're agreed that it may be of slight benefit to the kids to get through the door, even without structured activities. However I do feel this may not be worth it, and also that it may have an extra negative effect. It can be very off-putting to those who are there to swim properly to have a pool over-run by kids playing about. Has this effect been charted?

    ooozzzelll, wind your neck in.

  • Comment number 13.

    As a reasonably regular visitor to the UK and a keen recreational swimmer for health and fitness, I have found leisure centre pools in most towns.

    They are cheap and OK. In Cardiff I have "Stretch" card for over 60's which allows for free swims and in other towns a few pounds will allow entry.

    I have enjoyed pools in Brecon, Congleton, Ross on Wye, Ilford, Swansea and Crawley.

    Clearly Arsene is not a the old saying goes "you can lead a frog to water but you can't make them swim..."

  • Comment number 14.

    I understand we need to save money but aren't we always being told that our children are not healthy and active enough, then they cancel a scheme that gets children out from infront of the TV and into the swimming pool!. It works too, my daughter swims for a club so I spend a lot of time at the pool(we pay for this so free swimming makes no difference to us), the number of young swimmers in the pool increased once free swimming was available. I just think to cancel it from 31 July when the summer holidays are just starting was a bit mean 31 August would have been better.

  • Comment number 15.

    It is a crying shame that children in particular are being denied this wonderful activity, because we can be certain that many kids who would have continued to swim under this scheme will now be unable to afford to.

    Any savings may well be lost by future treatment for obesity and related illnesses in a young generation which all experts agree should be encouraged, not discouraged, to take more exercise.

  • Comment number 16.

    Matt, I normally find your blogs well written and an enjoyable read unlike some of the other so called 'sports' bloggers; but I too find your jibe at Arsene a 'cheap shot'.

    What has a decent man & good football manager got to do with the state of swimming pools or lack thereof? Surely a writer of your calibre could come up with something a little less predictable and petty??

    Now to the matter in hand, I think they might as well have kept the free swimming as in the grand scheme of things £5 million won't really make that much difference and would make a great difference to alot of parents over the summer holidays.

  • Comment number 17.

    That wasn't a cheap shot at Arsene Wenger, it was richly deserved. His selective myopia has long been a joke. How many times have we heard him say 'I didn't see the incident' - often when you can see him looking in the right direction in action replays? He's even admitted that he'll always back his players no matter what!

    Yet when the slighteset thing happens to one of his players his vision suddenly has laser-like accuracy from 50 yards away through a crowd of players, don't make me laugh, gooners!

  • Comment number 18.


    Just as an aside to this free swim offer - local swimming pools jumped at the chance for govt cash, the down side was in some areas a reduction in pool time for many local swimming clubs (and the future olympians).

    If the govt wanted to promote genuine use of swimming pools by children this is the area they should've supported (incl lessons & water polo). Pensioners also deserve some consideration.

    But NOT those who come for a free splash around.


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