Leading Conservative politicians in Birmingham have clashed over the future of a £4 million scheme that offers free swimming and gym sessions to all city residents regardless of their income.
The row came as a study by the the Association of Public Health Observatories revealed that the West Midlands was the fattest region in the European Union, with 29 per cent of adults classed as obese. The level was double that of the EU average of 14 per cent.
More than 300,000 people have registered for Birmingham’s free gym and swim session and Be Active scheme since it was launched in September 2009 as an anti-obesity project.
But although the initiative is managed by the city council, the funding to subsidise free entry to leisure centres comes from local NHS health trusts and could be withdrawn following Government cash cuts.
Alan Rudge, the cabinet member for equalities and human resources, hopes to negotiate a new funding agreement with the health trusts, but his Tory council colleague Nigel Dawkins believes the scheme is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Coun Dawkins (Con Bournville), who chairs the Selly Oak Constituency Committee, said the council could not afford to pay for Be Active if the health trust money dries up.
He added: “Making most of our facilities free to those people who actually could afford to pay was I believe a mistake.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to give everything away for nothing. We are about to discover that reversing that process, making people begin to pay again, is the hardest thing in the world to do.
“I know Be Active has won many awards. However awards do not pay the bills and it is the bills that should concern us.”
Urging the council to scale back Be Active, Coun Dawkins said: “We need to reintroduce back into our leisure centres a new business outlook. We need to begin weaning people back onto a paying model.”
Coun Rudge (Con Sutton Vesey) said: “Obesity is a problem across the UK and particularly in the West Midlands. We are working hard with our NHS partners to combat that problem in Birmingham.
“The results speak for themselves. The Be Active scheme has proved to be a huge success in Birmingham and we want to encourage more people to make the most of this provision.”
The funding agreement with the health trusts runs out next April, leaving a question mark over the future of the project.