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Final Battle Over Cut-Price Leisure

Thursday, 16th October 2003.

One of the most political issues dividing councillors on St Edmundsbury Borough Council comes up on Monday.

Half price leisure for families during school holiday times has been a main plank of the Labour members and a main target of the Torie ones.

It was bought in by the labour administration which took over in 1995, but when the Tories were returned to power in 1999 one of their first acts was to axe it.

When they lost power to the Rainbow Coalition, led by Labour in 2002, the new administration's first act was to bring it back.

But in May when the Tories were re-elected, it was quickly clear the policy's days would be numbered.

Efforts to save money by axing the reductions straightaway in time for the summer holidays failed because of a technicality, after Laour pointed out not enough notice of the policy change had been given to the overview and scrutiny committee chairman Cllr Mary Martin, a Haverhill Labour councillor.

The committee meets on Monday afternoon with half-price leisure on the agenda again.

It is recommended to operate the scheme for the October half term because it is too late to axe it, but it be stopped after that.

To replace it a range of measures is proposed which officers say will be better targeted to reach people on low incomes.

These include outreach schemes to villages and community centres, an overhaul of the year-round concessionary price scheme, and expansion of sport development work, use of technology such as smart cards to increase knowledge of where users come from and an allocation of 40,000 to cover the costs of it all.

In a report to members, assistant leisure services director Neil Anthony says subsidised holiday activities in 2002 saw a 30 per cent increase in participation on the standard priced ones of 2001.

Last school year's October half term, Christmas and February half term holidays also saw sizeable increases so the whole year was up 28 per cent, with nearly 14,000 more people using the two Sports Centres.

But 2003 has shown falls of 17 per cent in May half term and 19 per cent in the summer.

However, this was in line with national experience because the weather was so good that people preferred outdoor activities.

The committee, which is politically balanced, will be deciding whether to recommend the new measures to the council's Tory cabinet, which will make the final decision.

Haverhill councillor Gerry Kiernan, leader of the Labour administration which first brought in the scheme and a long-time champion of it, said: "The half price scheme was extremely popular in haverhill. It was introduced to give more young people a chance to use the Sports Centre during the long school holidays and it worked - attendances were up by 30 per cent."

The main reason given for stopping the scheme seems to be that it was so well used in the town and less well used by people outside the town.

"The council should be trying to build on the success and encourage people from a wider area to make use of the opportunities rather than stopping it for everybody."

"Many hundreds of young people in Haverhill are going to lose out by the scheme stopping. The new scheme certainly won't attract the same number of haverhill younsters. What are they going to be doing next summer?"

Haverhill Weekly News

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