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Volume 478: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

8. What the timetable and procedure will be for local authorities to apply for funding from the swimming challenge fund. (212573)

We are working with the Amateur Swimming Association, the Local Government Association, Sport England and others to develop the arrangements for implementing the scheme. We will issue guidance to local authorities as early as possible, and, in any event, in plenty of time to allow them to prepare for setting budgets in the autumn. I will make a further statement, outlining progress, before the House rises for the summer recess.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. We dived into the swimming pool for Questions 1 and 2, and now we are on the surface for some swimming. Will he note that in Stafford the local council has just opened a brand-new, modern-design swimming pool, which has plenty of happy swimmers? The council is very interested in the scheme, but is anxious to know the criteria so that its plans for a new swimming pool can fit them. May I urge him to keep to the timetable that he has described, and to consult local government about design?

We have been very grateful for the help, co-operation and advice of the Local Government Association so far, and we will continue to have the closest possible dialogue with it in taking the scheme forward. As I said, the intention is to have a partnership with local government, not to impose anything on anybody. We want councils voluntarily to come up with the basic idea, and to help make swimming as free as possible. It is a fantastic statement to the public that brand-new facilities such as those described by my hon. Friend are available free. We will start with the over-60s and then hope to make progress on the under-16s. We will give details before the summer recess, which will allow his council to plan accordingly.

In many parts of the country, local authority swimming pools are already very busy, whereas swimming pools in private gyms are often underused. Has the Minister thought about encouraging the participation of the private sector in the initiative?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In the past few years, many private sector pools have opened, and making the best possible use of them is a matter for local decision making. As I said earlier, more local authority pools have opened than have closed, which is in itself a positive statement. In constructing the scheme, we want to provide the capital that is available to those local authorities that are prepared to do most. If the hon. Gentleman will accept the logic, the more that people use pools, the more that such local authorities deserve help with the maintenance and improvement of facilities. He makes a good point: some councils’ pools are run by private organisations on a contractual basis. I am prepared to be flexible to help all councils make the best possible use of the pools located in their areas.