Blackburn first in UK to offer free leisure services

A local authority in northern England has become the first in the country to make all its leisure centres and swimming pools free in an attempt to improve the health of its population.

Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council launched the three-year scheme in response to figures showing it had one of the lowest rates of physical activity and one of the highest death rates in the country. Life expectancy in the area is, on average, eight years less than in other parts of the country and one in five residents has a chronic illness.

The council has the third-worst level of physical activity in the country, with 8.1 per cent of adults achieving the recommended 20 minutes of moderate intensity activity, such as brisk walking, five times a week.

Half of the £6m cost of the scheme is being funded by the local primary care trust, with the remainder paid for by the council. Colin Rigby, leader of the council, said: "Every year people in this borough are dying needlessly. We want people to live longer, healthier and better lives. We believe that this plan will help do that, but people must want to do something for themselves."

The scheme is being phased in over the next year with free access for the over-50s from this month. This will be extended to younger age groups later.

Activities on offer include swimming, aerobics, volleyball, badminton and bowling. Last month, the Government announced plans to introduce free swimming in all local authority pools by 2012.

A spokeswoman for the council said: "We have beaten the Government to it. Our pools are busier already. All users require a membership card and we normally issue 40 to 60 a month. In the three-week run-up to the launch of the scheme we issued 1,000. We think it is working – but it has only been running since last week."

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