‘Gym For Free’ scheme: Birmingham

Posted on May 12, 2009 in Journalism

“Most public health programmes focus on small groups of people – I wanted to do something population-wide,” says Kevin Haywood, head of public health programmes at the Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust.  “So I contacted the city council and suggested doing something for the whole of [the parliamentary constituency of] Ladywood, and they bought into the idea, saying ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

The idea of giving 110,000 residents free access to gym facilities, swimming and fitness classes was hatched by the two organisations in December 2007, and within an impressive five weeks a scheme was operational.   “We sent every resident a valentines day card, on 14th February 2008, inviting them to come and visit,” says Ms Jerwood, the council’s constituency senior manger for Ladywood.

The constituency is one of the most deprived in the country, with very low incomes and poor health (see box).  But that is precisely why it was the chosen location: the aim of the ‘Gym For Free’ scheme is to break down the barriers that prevent people taking up healthy exercise.  “Many people in the area can’t afford the leisure opportunities that others can, in order to become physically active,” says Dr Jacky Chambers, the PCT’s director of public health.

Gym for free

And the universal, free provision has really made a difference.  “We always talked about time and place [of provision],” says Steve Holingworth, the council’s assistant director of sports and events.  “But cost was a real issue – and the scheme has proved so.”  Before the scheme started, 95 Ladywood residents were paying to use the council’s facilities; whereas now a staggering 15,000 people are coming through the door, ie for every person there used to be, there are now nearly 160.  (Two thousand people came at least once by subsequently dropped out.)  Says Mr Haywood: “I would have been happy if 1000 people had enrolled – but 15,000.  It has proved to be more than what we wanted.”


There were practical reasons for selecting Ladywood.  There were good relations between the PCT and the council’s offices.  And the idea enjoyed the support of the local councillor, which meant that, given the council’s devolved decision making, the scheme could be set up quickly.

And it isn’t just the usual suspects who are taking advantage and benefiting from the free provision (see box).  Men, says Ms Jerwood, normally account for the overwhelming majority of gym club members – typically around 75%.  But the split between genders in Ladywood is more balanced, with 57% males and 43% females.  There has also been good uptake among the area’s ethnic groups.  Thirteen percent of users categorise themselves as Black African, 9% as Indian and 8% Pakistani – with significant take-up by Bangladeshi and other Muslims for women-only aerobics and gym classes.  Over 1000 people reporting a disability have also taken advantage of the facilities.

The scheme was set in motion by an under-spend of £05.m in the PCT’s public health budget for 2007/08 – money that the council spends on extra staff and fitness classes, and administration costs.  But the partners are so pleased with the results – the numbers participating, the ability to benefit hard to reach groups, and the knock-on benefits – that the PCT has allocated a further £2.8m to continue the scheme through 2009/10 and 2010/11.

“The scheme has enormous value for money,” says the PCT’s chair, Ranjit Sondhi.  “It keeps people physically healthy, it prevents things like cardio vascular diseases, and it makes people informed about their bodies – there are huge savings.”

In fact, the scheme has been so successful that it has created quite a few challenges, says Mark Brown, manager of the Nechells Community Sports Centre, one of the scheme’s most popular venues (beneficiaries have to be residents of Ladywood but can use any council-run sports facility in the city).  From the scheme’s beginning, he explains, telephone receptionists were inundated with calls, and were asked queries that neither they nor the management yet knew how to answer.  There have also been logistical problems.  Some people had to wait weeks for their gym induction, and before the first few popular sessions some people were ready to start while others were still waiting to enrol.

Coping with the increased demand has required a doubling of aerobics and other fitness classes, and created severe pressure on crèche places.

Even when people were through the door the challenges did not end.  Most adult gym users, explains Mr Brown, like to come on their own or with a friend, and like to get on with their routine.  Teenagers, by contrast, like to come with their mates – seven or eight at a time – and haven’t always been to a gym before.  Mr Brown has responded by arranging dedicated gym times for young people to attend – when the music is turned up, and staff can be on hand to help and keep a watchful eye.

But access for young people is one of the scheme’s benefits.  It has given the police something to offer teenagers looking for something to do, says Ms Jerwood.  “And the police can drop into the gym – it has allowed them to have another contact with young people.”

Even more important is evidence that the scheme is making users think about their lifestyle more broadly – beyond the gym.  According to research by the University of Birmingham, the scheme has made some people change their diet, cooking habits, and had an impact on their drinking and smoking.  “It is a very valuable and successful scheme,” the research concludes.

“I think everyone should have free access to a core sporting activity – in the same way that people have free access to their GP,” says Mr Haywood.

And with the biggest users of each sports venue being the surrounding residents, several users say they have got to meet and know their neighbours as a result – and met school friends again, with whom they had lost touch.

Overall, the scheme has been so successful that it has energised the council and PCT into thinking of ways to develop it – partly out of necessity, to cope with the demand, but also because they want to build on its success.  “There is such intense pressure on facilities we need to be innovative.  We are now looking to organise aerobics sessions outside, and running and walking in public parks,” says Ms Jerwood.

The partners are even thinking of going further.  Ladywood has a lot of unused land that would make good allotments for people to grow fresh food, says Ms Jerwood.  And there is a transient young population, vulnerable to food poverty, who would benefit from cooking classes and nutritional information.  “People want to come to the gym but they also want help on healthy eating,” says Ms Jerwood.


Birmingham’s Gym For Free scheme is not unique – Blackburn and Darwen BC recently allocated £6m to fund a similar scheme for three years, having introduced it on a phased basis over the last 12 months – but the idea needn’t been as rare among councils as it is, despite the recession.  “If we [Birmingham]- the largest local authority – can do it there is no reason why others cannot,” says Ms Jerwood.  In fact, the council is currently considering whether to replicate the scheme across the whole city.

“Health has never been uppermost in my mind, but the scheme has made the council realise public health is our responsibility, as well as that of the health authority,” says the city councillor for Ladywood, Carl Rice.  “Of all the initiatives I have been involved in, during my 21 years as a local councillor, this is the best I can recall.”

Ladywood’s statistics
•    110,000 population
•    62% ethnic minorities (30% in Birmingham as a whole)
•    49,000 are obese
•    Average life expectancy 72 years
•    Nearly 50% of households have average incomes below £15,000 pa
•    43% of working age population have no qualifications

Feedback from users
•    It is local, it is free and I need to lose weight – Mel.
•    I get my stress out and feel more comfortable – Mrirnda [Mrirnda]
•    You feel refreshed when you go home; I sleep better and have lost weight – Lillian
•    The scheme is getting people motivated and off the streets.  If it wasn’t here I would probably be in the pub, drinking – Mitchel
•    Families on a budget find it difficult to go to a gym.  I now have no excuse – Debbie

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