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We’re the first London borough to offer free leisure centre access

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In Southwark, significant capital investment has enabled us to build a fantastic leisure portfolio over the last few years.


  • Project: Free swim and gym
  • Objectives: To make it easier for residents to be healthier and more active
  • Timescale: Deliver general free swim and gym offer in 2016
  • Cost to authority: £130k for the pilot scheme, marketing costs only for the general offer
  • Number of staff working on project: A small core team of 3 people in sport, public health and comms, with dozens of others helping across the council
  • Outcomes: Pilot scheme has so far proved a success and helped to confirm the offer for all residents coming into effect this summer
  • Officer contact details: Deborah Collins

Following the 2014 local elections, Southwark Council pledged to introduce a free swim and gym scheme for all residents.

Like all local councils, we faced substantial government budget cuts, so we knew we had to think innovatively, especially with some of our leisure centres already partially running at capacity.

The council’s fairer future promise was driven by the strong public health need in the borough to increase activity and tackle rising obesity. Our challenge was to deliver the pledge, keep costs down, manage the capacity in our leisure centres and encourage a sustainable take up of the offer.

Deborah collins web

Deborah collins web

Deborah Collins

Being only the third council in the UK, and the first in London, to offer such a scheme, we found that while we could learn from other schemes, we needed to create a Southwark-specific model. We started by talking to residents and evaluating the cost and capacity implications for us and our leisure centres. We were also keen to ensure public health was part of our team from the beginning.

The cost and centre capacity issues meant we needed an offer that focused on off-peak hours. The offer also had to be as clear as possible for residents to help maximise its uptake. However, the only way to test the scheme was to pilot it alongside an engaging marketing campaign.

In May 2015, we launched a pilot that targeted two pivotal groups. It offered under 18s free swim and gym access in our leisure centres all day Friday and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and it offered over-60s free access to ‘silver sessions’ all week. We also included public health-funded GP referrals.

Southwark leisure centre silver sessions

Southwark leisure centre silver sessions

To date, almost 10,000 residents have registered and made more than 24,000 visits. Among adults, the highest response was from women, who are typically less active than men. For under 18’s, our biggest response has been from teenagers, a group widely perceived as difficult to involve.

The pilot showed that the offer was reaching exactly where it needed to and that we have got practicalities such as the times of the sessions and the marketing campaign right. We have also recently extended the scheme to disabled residents, giving them free access all week at the Castle leisure centre, which was designed for the highest standards of disabled access.

The next challenge in making the general scheme a reality was cost. Last year we retendered our leisure management contract. We were very clear with the market that the new contract would include delivering the free leisure offer and the response was excellent. It allows us to roll out the general offer this summer, while still making savings in this area.

While we have made a great start to making it easier for people to be healthier and more active, I am looking forward to rolling out our scheme to all residents in July and encouraging whole families to get more active together. Residents’ feedback shows cost is a significant barrier to getting active. By giving parents in particular the opportunity to exercise with their children, we can get more families to think about investing in their own health and getting active without having to worry about the budget.

Deborah Collins, strategic director for environment and leisure, Southwark LBC


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