Toddlers in one of the poorest parts of Sussex could be charged to use nearby swimming pools for the first time.

Littlehampton Swimming Pool and Sports Centre and Arun Leisure Centre, Bognor, have always let the under-fives go free but after the leisure services were privatised a year ago new charges are planned.

Inspire Leisure, which runs the centres, said it cost too much to clear up after the youngsters who often had "minor accidents". It also said it wanted to shut a creche at the Bognor pool.

Campaigners said the changes sent out the wrong message to young families on the importance of exercise and undermined the drive to reduce childhood obesity.

The new charges, which could be anything from £1.25 to £2, are part of a five-year business plan due to start this April.

In a report Inspire Leisure said the age group was the most expensive to manage because of cleaning costs.

It also said it wanted to replace the underused creche, which lost £10,000 a year, in the front reception at Arun Leisure Centre with shops or an extension to the cafe.

At a council meeting on Monday, fees for the over-threes were agreed.

Councillors said the money raised would have to be used to help deprived young families and the creche needed to be found somewhere else in the building.

Council leader Gill Brown said: "Obviously exercise is extremely important and we want children to come in and swim but we have to accept Inspire Leisure's need to run a viable business."

Liberal Democrat councillor Simon McDougall said: "This is the kind of issue we were worried would happen if the leisure services were handed over.

"The fact that under-fives go free is a unique selling point for our pools and I have no doubt that introducing a charge will stop lots of people from coming so often and probably at all.

"We be encouraging young people of this age group to take up exercise.

"Just when the Government is talking about reducing obesity and improving the health of the nation we go and do something which is going to make it harder for the target groups."

Chief Executive John Stride said the idea to introduce fees for youngsters was still in the inquiry stage and no definite decision had been made.

He said the business was making an effort to attract younger swimmers with menu changes and a £350,000 revamp at the Littlehampton pool.

He said: "We have been reviewing all the prices that we inherited from the council and trying to make it user friendly.

"Fees for the under-fives are just one of the aspects and we are just asking about whether we would be allowed to introduce them at this stage."

A report from the Department of Health published last year predicted that more than 12 million adults and one million children will be obese by 2010 if no action was taken.

The Health Survey for England warned that 19 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls aged two to 15 would be obese.

The Government has set a target to halt the increase in obesity among under-11s by 2010, but is widely expected to miss it.

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