Country's first council gives residents free access to sports centres to help fight the flab

Last updated at 10:17 20 March 2008

The first council in the UK is offering residents free access to its sports centres in a bit to cut the nation's growing obesity problem and to improve health.

Britons are so unfit that the Government is increasingly looking for drastic measures to help fight the flab.

So council bosses in one area have decided to scrap charges for those using the gym, swimming pools and other leisure facilities.

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Fighting the flab: The first council in the UK is giving residents free access to sports centres to help tackle obesity

Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, Lancashire, will phase in the scheme - believed to be a first in the UK - during 2009.

Its aim is to tackle the area's poor health and increase life expectancy, which is currently eight years lower than the national average.

The programme will cost £6million over the first three years, with the cost being covered by the council and primary care trust.

All those living and working in the borough will be able to play badminton, squash, participate in fitness classes, including aerobics, swim and use the gym for free.

It currently costs £7 per hour to hire a squash court and admission to swim is £3.15.

The new £12million leisure centre to open in Darwen next year will also be free to use.

The council's chief executive Graham Burgess said: "We would be failing in our responsibility to the population if we didn't do something dramatic.

"It's something people have told us they want."

The council and PCT will contribute £1 million per year to the scheme, which also includes a health trainer in each neighbourhood, more sports coaches and family weekend activities throughout the borough."

The initiative was officially launched today at Blackburn Rovers' Ewood Park. Olympic gold medalist Sally Gunnell and Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor were among the guest speakers.

Mr Burgess said an intensive business assessment had been undertaken to ensure the scheme did not run over budget.

The council's contribution will mostly come from a larger-than-expected government grant for the next three years.

PCT chief executive Judith Griffin said they needed to encourage residents to lead a healthier lifestyle. In the borough last year, more than 24,000 people drunk excessive amounts of alcohol, and the borough's adults had the third worst exercise levels in the country.

Around 20 per cent of residents have a limiting long term illness, and 58 per cent of adults in the borough did not exercise.

The average life expectancy in the UK is 80.9, whereas in Blackburn and Darwen it is 72 years.

Research shows sports participation is particularly low among women and in ethnic minority communities.

Ms Griffin added: "Unless we do something life expectancy will keep on going in the wrong direction."

Council leader Colin Rigby said: "Every year, people in this borough are dying needlessly. We want people to live longer, healthier and better lives. We believe that this new plan will help do that, but people must want to do something themselves."

The final details of how the scheme will work are still being drawn up and agreed by the council's ruling executive board in the next two months.

The offer will apply to people living and working in Blackburn and Darwen, and those covered by Blackburn with Darwen PCT but living outside the borough - about an extra 20,000 people.

Sport England has hailed the scheme as a "one of a kind". The organisation awards funds from the National Lottery to help promote community sports and an active nation.

Stewart Kellett, its north west regional director, said: "The announcement is great news for the people of Blackburn and Darwen.

"The benefits of sport and physical activity are huge - for health fitness and happiness.

"We applaud the council and the PCT for its significant commitment to, and investment in, the health and well-being of the people who live there."

Council chief executive Graham Burgess said he was confident the move would not affect the profits of private leisure centres.

Graham Rogers, assistant director at Wigan-based JJB which runs two fitness centres in Blackburn, said: "This is the first we have heard of the plans and I don't want to make a knee jerk reaction.

"Our facilities are of a standard that nobody else for miles around can match and our clients are very discerning.

"If the council wants to do something that promotes fitness to the general population then that can only be applauded."

Labour leader Kate Hollern said: "I welcome anything that encourages healthy living. I am pleased the Government has recognised the importance of improving the borough's health."

Labour MP for Darwen and Rossendale Janet Anderson said: "I imagine this has been made possible by the generous grant the council received from the Government. I am glad the Labour government has had an impact on the well-being of people in Blackburn with Darwen."

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