After the surprise announcement last month by culture secretary Andy Burnham that using public swimming pools will become free for senior citizens, the following message appeared on the website “There will be no room for the rest of us. I can’t think of a better reason for introducing compulsory euthanasia to the over 55s.”

It was a tongue-in-cheek comment but representative of wider scepticism about the plans. After 11 years of New Labour, many have grown tired of the strange coincidence of poor poll ratings being followed by bewitching new policy initiatives which become less impressive on further investigation. For local government, though, the issue is about more than political cynicism. Councils were not consulted by Mr Burnham’s department in the run-up to the new policy – which will eventually cover all ages – but are now being expected to make it work.

Iain Varah, chief culture, sport and community learning officer for Redbridge LBC, is appalled. In his previous job at Newport City Council he had helped to implement free swimming for the under 16s in Wales, which he believes succeeded due to a long period of dialogue between local authorities and the Welsh Assembly.

“Here it’s been ill-thought out, there’s no detail and it’s been done to us by central government,” he says.

Mr Varah, who sits on the executive of the Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association, contrasts the strong swimming infrastructure of Scotland and Wales with the substandard position for much of London. In Redbridge, for example, the position is dire. The borough has a population of a quarter of a million, but has only two pools, one of which is going to have to close in December for structural reasons. According to the facilities planning model used by Sport England, Redbridge should have four 25-metre pools.

At a recent meeting with officials at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Mr Varah saw the civil servants’ latest blueprint. There will be three pots of money for the scheme. The first will offer £15m a year for two years to fund free swimming for the over 60s. Pot two will offer £25m a year for two years to fund free swimming for the under 16s. Both of these will start next April.

Pot three will be a capital fund offering £10m between now and April, and £25m a year for the following two years. This will be for small refurbishment projects such as new lockers or refreshment areas, rather than major rebuilding work. A fourth pot is being mooted to fund 50 Amateur Swimming Association co-ordinators based in each county to encourage participation.

A spokesman for the DCMS defends the government’s plans: “We’re confident that there is the capacity for the free swimming offer and this has been echoed by the Amateur Swimming Association.”

He says that in the last four years more local authority pools have been opened than closed in England. But campaigners argue that so many closed during the preceding 20 years that the £250m the government has spent over 11 years is insufficient. “It works out at an average of £23m a year — peanuts if you consider the number of pools in Britain,” says Sally Wainman, founder of Pooling Resources, which campaigns for community pools.

It is clear from Mr Varah’s meetings at the DCMS that Mr Burnham’s headline-grabbing announcement took civil servants by surprise. Indeed, much of what was originally suggested is now revealed to have been spin. For example, the secretary of state promised free swimming across the country. Now it emerges that councils will be able to opt in or out of the plan and will only have to provide free swimming at certain times. Finally, what of the universal free provision to come in by 2012? “When I brought that up they said ‘Let’s just get this sorted Online Pokies out first.’ It’s all gone very quiet on the universal front,” he says.

As far as the nuts and bolts of payment goes, the DCMS appears to favour offering councils a flat rate based on demographics, rather than subsidising each swim. Under this model, authorities might receive £30,000 to £100,000 a year for the over 60s and £50,000 to £200,000 for the under 16s.

Councils will have to explain how they are going to use the funding. So authorities like Wigan MBC, which have already introduced their own version of free swimming, will have to show that they are extending their swimming offer and may offer free lessons to people in deprived areas.

Rodney Hill, chief executive of Wigan Leisure & Cultural Trust, the social enterprise that runs swimming facilities for the council, is enthusiastic. “We have free entry for museums and galleries. Why not for swimming? We still get young people drowning in canals and swimming is one of the best ways of improving fitness and health.”

He speaks from experience. In April 2005 the trust began offering free swimming to the under 16s, the following year extending it to the over 60s. In previous years swimming numbers had been falling, which contradicted the trust’s aim of getting Wigan active.

The experiment proved a success, with a 40% increase in swimming by the under 16s and a 19% rise for the over 60s. And Mr Hill makes the point that the sport has inherent advantages as a tool for improving people’s health. “Swimming is an easy thing to target as you are running the pools anyway.”

He estimates it costs £60,000 for older people and £110,000 for the under 16s to swim free at times when pools are set aside for casual swimming. The trust funded it by closing an old Victorian pool that was expensive to run and used the savings to fund swimming, as well as subsequently opening a new pool. Such an approach will not please everyone and the Victorian Society has warned of more historic pools being forced to close.

Dr Ian Dungavell, Director of the Victorian Society says: “To make free swimming a reality, the government must ensure that there is sufficient money available for the refurbishment and maintenance of historic community pools. Pools like these have so much to offer and meet so many of the government’s heritage, health and community value criteria, yet people around the country are having to fight to save them.”

Hill urges councils to view free swimming positively and offers advice for those introducing it. “Plan the lead-in carefully. We have a card system swimmers must use, allowing us to monitor gender, ethnicity and postcode so you can see where it’s working. And be prepared to manage potential conflicts between, for example, serious swimmers and others.”

The week after Mr Burnham’s bold announcement, figures released by the British Market Research Bureau showed a big fall in the number of 11 to 18-year-olds swimming weekly — down from 25% in 1993 to just 12% today. Since then it has emerged that although swimming is a compulsory part of the national curriculum for seven to 11-year-olds, primary schools are either having to cut back on swimming lessons or ask parents to pay for transport costs now that school pools are rare and local facilities have closed.

And what about overcrowding? Many pools are already running at capacity. If admissions rise by 30%, will we end up with the clichéd YouTube scenes from China and Japan of crowds standing chatting in the shallow end? So while free swimming may inspire some to get back in the water, without new pools the hoped-for renaissance in health and fitness is unlikely to materialise. And with little apparent planning from ministers, councils may feel that they have been thrown in at the deep end.