Residents across south east Northumberland have strongly criticised Active Northumberland over its new pricing structure.
The organisation says the system, which came into effect on Tuesday, offers ‘fair and simple prices at all sites’ compared to the variety of prices offered across the county as a result of different operators being in charge of the leisure centres.
But the changes mean many people will have to pay more and concerns have been raised about the effect they will have on those affected.
Andy Nelson, who receives a disability allowance, was one of the people contacted because he pays by direct debit. He was paying £24 a month for a 12-month contract, but this has gone up to £32.
The new contract includes the option of using other leisure centres in the county and there are still concessions for people receiving benefits, but they apply only on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Mr Nelson said: “I will no longer be able to afford to go to my local centre in Ashington if I have to pay an extra £8 per month.
“Active Northumberland should be encouraging disabled people to use its facilities and taking away the discount for a year’s membership will lead to many of us using them a lot less.”
Blyth resident Hazel Williamson has also been affected.
She said: “There is considerable media focus on ‘social prescribing’ and the £10 million per year that the NHS spend on treating diabetes not mention the many other ailments caused by obesity.
“I find incomprehensible that Active Northumberland seems to be bucking the trend regarding ‘social prescribing’ and are essentially pulling this concession.”
Arnold Wilson, who lives in Cramlington, raised concerns about the ‘major increase to the cost of health start and health quest sessions at Concordia Leisure Centre.’
He added: “This means that many people who suffer from an illness or are recovering from injury will be unable to afford these vital sessions.”
Colin Easton, of Blyth, also raised this issue and also said that he and other Blyth Sports Centre users are unhappy with how the new structure was announced ‘with very little notice’.
An Active Northumberland spokeswoman said: “When Active Northumberland took over from four leisure providers in October 2014, some members were still paying exactly what they paid 20 years ago alongside other members who were paying three or four times more but receiving the same service – hence the need to implement a fair and consistent pricing policy for all.
“The cost of providing leisure facilities has increased over the past two years, however our prices have remained static. In order to ensure leisure centres remain sustainable in the future and to minimise the level of financial support needed, Active Northumberland must operate a more commercial model.
“The most expensive part of running a leisure centre is providing a modern swimming facility as this needs specialist equipment, heating, cleaning, staff and training.
“We believe that the price of £32 per month remains very good value and is competitively priced compared to other similar facilities within the region.
“For £32 a month, for a 12 month contract, members can gain access to 14 leisure centres, 10 swimming pools and over 450 weekly fitness classes.
“Our new pricing policy is based on users’ ability to pay, not where they live, work or their age.
“We have been able to introduce concessions for low-income customers, including OAPs who are in receipt of benefits, and we have also extended children’s reduced prices up to the age of 18.
“We have also been able to reduce prices in some areas for certain activities. For example, fitness classes in some areas have dropped from £6.70 to the new county-wide price of £5.60.
“Active Northumberland will still be offering a GP referral service. We receive funding for the GP assessments, but it does not cover the cost of providing leisure facilities.
“Referred customers will now be reviewed by specialist staff and directed to specific health improvement classes with qualified instructors as paying members, as well as joining in free activities such as health walks and doorstep walks.
“Our members are very important to us and we value their support. We hope they can understand the very difficult decisions we have had to make.
“Now is the time to ensure people across the county pay the same great value price to help continue the £40 million improvements being made to leisure centres and to help create a sustainable service for the future.”
The eligible benefits for a concession rate are as follows: Job Seekers Allowance, Severe Disablement Allowance, Housing Benefit/Employment Support Allowance, Attendance Allowance, Incapacity Benefit/Employment Support Allowance, Income Support/Pension Credit Guarantee, Carer’s Allowance, Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment, Housing Benefit/Council tax support.