THE UK’s Olympic 2012 legacy of encouraging children into sport could be lost in Caithness as local youth groups struggle to pay rising charges for using school facilities.
In the wake of a memorable summer of sport, the county’s youth football honcho is calling on local councillors to lead the way on a re-think of the policy to charge juniors for access to school sports facilities such as gym halls and football pitches.
It was the council which gave approval to the plan to phase in the charges over three years — with the second increase currently in force.
Hugh MacDonald, secretary of Caithness Boys Football Association (CBFA) and secretary of Thurso Youth Club football section, believes it is time to challenge what he views as a red card offence.
"We are all volunteers working in voluntary groups giving up our time and the charge we face to use the council facilities is just one more headache we have to deal with," he said.
"I would still hope councillors would re-think the policy on this.
"The charges, which are going steadily up, certainly don’t encourage youngsters to take up a sport – it goes against the whole case made for getting kids involved and building on the summer of sport we have just had."
Highland Council agreed in 2009 to start charging youth groups for access to school sporting facilities as it was felt there was a long-time inequality with youth groups receiving free lets within schools, but being charged for the same activity at other council facilities and independent village halls.
The councillors agreed to phase in the tariff in order to mitigate the impact.
But the yearly five per cent increase immediately caused problems with the cancellation of weekly touch rugby sessions at Wick High School and an outcry among youth groups over having to find extra cash for accessing school facilities that were previously free.
Now in the second year of price increases, some CBFA clubs have had to introduce a members’ subscription fee for the first time.
"This is mainly due to the introduction of charges for lets," said Mr MacDonald.
"We put out a letter to parents saying we had held off as long as possible from introducing charges but that we now have no option but to impose them.
"We are charged for facilities we use – Thurso High and the Naver all-weather park – that were free before."
Mr MacDonald said the annual weekend festival run by CBFA at Thurso High incurred a charge of £260 to cover the let of the playing fields and games hall changing rooms.
However, the policy has been defended by a council education spokesman.
"Groups involved in youth work activities, for example youth clubs or scouts, were exempted from charges, and groups which are made up of under 16s but not in the category of youth work, such a junior badminton club, receive a 50 per cent discount," he said.
"In bringing in a Highland-wide standard charge, it was recognised that in some areas this would mean a freeze in charges and in others, it would mean a rise.
"Where the rise to the target price was more than five per cent, it was agreed that the target price would be achieved over a three-year period."
But youth groups around Caithness are still struggling to find the funds and it is not just football that is incurring the penalties.
David Eyers, secretary of Caithness Athletic Club, said it too had found the charges a major headache.
The club has more than 75 members, aged from eight to 18, who train at Thurso High, where they have to pay lets for both the indoor facilities and the track.
"The charges have made us think hard about when we use the games hall and the gyms," Mr Eyers said.
"We previously booked the games hall all-year round but this year we went outside after Easter.
"This year the weather has been awful and there have been nights when we’ve had to cancel, it’s been so bad."
Mr Eyers said it had managed to keep its subscription rate for its member unchanged for several years but the latest hike would probably force the club to put up its subs.
"The council through its charging policy is hardly encouraging clubs or young people to take up sport," he said.
"We’re all volunteers willingly putting in our own time but there’s not much support being shown by either the council or Scottish Athletics to help us."
Paul Reid, secretary of Thurso YC football section, said he was dreading the next bill with the increased rate.
He also called on councillors to return youth access to free lets.
He said: "Returning to having free lets is certainly the biggest encouragement the council could make to youth sport in this area."
The majority of free school lets involve school-based extra-curricular activities, which remain free.
An exemption from charges applies for activities connected with the Feisan movement and youth and uniformed organisations.