Hundreds of youngsters could miss out on potentially life-saving swimming lessons following a decision to stop community groups using  New Forest pools. 

Swimming clubs using Freedom Leisure operated New Forest District Council leisure centres at Totton, Applemore and Lymington have had their long-standing bookings cancelled from the end of the year. 

Some have been using the pools for decades but have now been told they are in competition with Freedom Leisure's own swim academy. 

Users have hit out at the decision describing it as 'outrageous' and 'devastating'.

A petition has been launched and has already been signed more than 1000 times. 

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Graham Clements is the chairman of Applemore and Waterside Swimming Club, which has 130 young members, including some with visual impairments and other disabilities, learning to swim on a Saturday afternoon at Applemore Health & Leisure. 

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The group, which has operated for 40 years, will be forced to close if the decision cannot be overturned. 

Graham said: "It would be heart-breaking if we were to close, putting a stop to lessons for 130 children who live surrounded by water. It's a vital life skill. 

"We've been there for 40 years, we opened when the centre opened. We've taught thousands of children to swim and now we have some very, very angry parents.

"There's enough capacity for Freedom Leisure to run as many classes as they like. We are not competition to them. We are a fully inclusive community group, part of a family, with volunteer teachers and a low membership fee. There's room for us both."

Totton South ward councillor David Harrison is among the councillors who have added their weight to the campaign. He said: "I feel so sorry for the people who run these clubs and the members who value them so highly."

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Peter Cheeseman, Freedom Leisure’s Area Manager said; "We would like to reassure everyone that no child will miss out on their regular swimming lesson as a result of this decision. We will provide spaces on our programme at our three swimming pools and we will honour the prices charged by the swim clubs for lessons should the clubs decide not to relocate."

Cllr Dan Poole, New Forest District Council Portfolio Holder for Community, Safety and Wellbeing, added: “I was made aware in the summer of Freedom Leisure’s intention to issue notice to the Waterside Swimming Club, operating out of Applemore.  I was later advised that a similar position was being taken with regards to the swimming clubs operating out of Totton and Lymington.  Why these clubs specifically; it is because they offer the same progressive learn-to-swim programme as offered by the leisure centre provider directly. 

"Whilst I appreciated this was likely to be an unpopular decision taken by Freedom Leisure, and I certainly have empathy for customers who have opted to join the clubs’ learn-to-swim programme, as opposed to the programme offered by Freedom Leisure, at the same time, I must recognise the importance of allowing Freedom Leisure to operate and take decisions in line with our contractual arrangement.

"I am seeking further assurance from Freedom Leisure that all children currently enrolled in the club swimming schools will receive the support they need to continue to learn-to-swim, which is clearly such an invaluable life-skill.”