Free swims for disabled and unemployed people in Armagh looks set to be scraped as councillors will tonight (Monday) be asked to harmonise a 65% concessionary rate right across the borough.
Elected representatives are being urged to come to an agreement on the discounted rate for the two groups, in a bid to harmonise the approach across the entire Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council area.
The issue had caused tensions to rise when it was brought to the table last November, when Unionist councillors were told they “should feel ashamed” for refusing to endorse calls to extend free swims to “vulnerable” users.
All the while Sinn Fein were accused of using the issue as an “attempt to grab a cheap headline” without “fully understanding the ramifications of such a decision”.
All three councils had previously recognised that there are groups of people for whom cost may be a barrier for participating in using leisure facilities.
Each had different arrangements to address this issue and since April 2015, the ABC Council has been moving towards a position of harmonising that approach.
Currently in the Armagh legacy council area, both disabled and unemployed people swim for free, but in Banbridge and Craigavon they are charged the concessionary rate of 65 per cent.
The two options were to extend free swimming for both categories to cover Banbridge and Craigavon, in addition to Armagh, where it is in place, or charge concession rate of 65 per cent for all three areas.
The recommendation to go before councillors tonight is to harmonise the 65 per cent for all three areas – meaning Armagh ending the practice of free swims for disabled and unemployed.
The report states that “given the proposed improvement in our facilities and services, it is recommended that
our disability users should pay a concession rate for swimming during public swim times”.
It adds: “During the 2017/2018 year, 502 disabled swimmers used the Orchard Leisure Centre free of charge. If Council was to introduce the concession rate and the level of usage remained constant, then there would be a gain of £983.00.
“However it is likely that the level of usage would fall, potentially significantly, as some of those currently availing of the service do so on the basis of it being free of charge.”
If approved this will be phased in over the next three months in the Armagh area.