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House of Lords

Thursday, 2nd November 1995.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

School Playing Fields

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many local authorities and grant-maintained schools have sold their playing fields during the past five years, and whether they will take steps to stop this practice.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, our policy is that playing fields must be retained where needed, and we shall retain statutory minimum area standards for them. While we do not collect information from local education authorities about disposals, grant-maintained schools may only dispose of a playing field with the consent of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Since 1990 eight grant-maintained schools have sold part of their playing fields.

Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer, which is rather akin to the parson's egg. I am sorry that he was not able to state that the policy of selling playing fields has been stopped because Miss Gillan, the schools Minister, said in October, when launching the Our Schools, Your Schools policy, that school sports facilities and premises are important resources. Does the policy which my noble friend outlined line up with that expression of the Government's policy? Further, will my noble friend confirm that the Sports Council can veto any sale of school playing fields it considers unsatisfactory?

Lord Henley: My Lords, on my noble friend's second point, I can give an assurance that although the Sports Council does not have a veto, following my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's policy statement in the summer, he has announced that the Sports Council should have the status of a statutory consultee on all planning proposals affecting playing fields.

As regards the first point, there may be occasions when it is necessary and when there are positive benefits in selling sports fields to allow consolidation of sports fields somewhere else or to make other provision for sports facilities. To have an absolute blanket ban on all disposals would be the wrong way to proceed. However, I can assure my noble friend that, as I made clear in my original Answer, we will maintain the minimum area standards for playing fields, and those will be retained in full.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the policy of the Government, far from being to discourage the sale of playing fields

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above the minimum level of provision, has been, during the whole course of this Government's life until last summer, to encourage, and even to insist upon, local authorities selling any land available above the minimum level? Does he agree that if local authorities were unable, as they were in many cases, to put roofs over the heads of children or repair decaying buildings, they were exhorted by the Secretary of State to sell the land and use the money?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Baroness gives a slightly misleading picture. Since 1991—and similar regulations were in force before then—we have had regulations which provide for minimum area standards. Thereafter, it is a matter, in the case of LEA schools, for the LEA to decide what is appropriate and what ought to be disposed of. LEAs can make up their own minds. In the case of grant-maintained schools, if they wish to sell land surplus to requirements they can do so but they need to seek the permission of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the proper management of a local authority's estate is properly the business of that authority and that the exchange of some part of a playing field for other assets may well be very worth while and in the interests of the community as a whole?

Lord Henley: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. That was the point I was trying to convey to my noble friend Lord Caldecote and to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the young male in particular—this is not a sexist remark—has an enormous amount of aggression to get rid of, and if he cannot get rid of it in organised games he gets rid of it in much less desirable ways?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am in total agreement with the noble Baroness. I hope that she will endorse our policy on sport and, particularly in the light of her remarks on aggression, our policy on boxing.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the sale of a playing field with planning permission enables the purchase of another playing field without planning permission and the investment of a large amount of money in equipment and accommodation to the benefit of the schoolchildren in question?

Lord Henley: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. There would not be many cases where a local authority sought to sell playing fields without planning permission. It is obviously the planning permission which adds value and allows local authorities to make alternative provision, which might be in the form of improved indoor or all-weather sports facilities or in the form of further provision elsewhere.

Lord Howell: My Lords, while it is encouraging that the Prime Minister has issued a document, Sport: Raising the Game, is it not deplorable that not one word of apology has yet been made for Circular 909, on the basis of which playing fields were sold off? Perhaps I may inform the Minister that 5,000 playing fields have been sold off and a further 1,600 are under threat. Is it

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not regrettable that he does not have those figures at his disposal since there is a national register which makes the situation clear? When is Circular 909 to be withdrawn? It is still in place. Why did the Prime Minister say that schools selling off playing fields can now keep all their capital receipts instead of half, as if that were an encouragement? Most important, where will local authorities and schools find the land, most of which is now under concrete, and where are they going to get the money to create the new playing fields which the Government very properly want?

Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I can assist the noble Lord. The latest figures show that there are some 78,000 pitches in England. I apologise to the House for giving only the figures for England. Fewer than 3 per cent. of those pitches are under threat of development. I can also assure the noble Lord that records show that playing fields owned by schools or local education authorities are much less likely to be sold off than others.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, now that the Prime Minister has given priority to this matter, would it not be a good idea to make it a rule not to sell any more playing fields until we have renewed some of our efforts in this country and shown some of the sporting instincts which we encouraged in the rest of the world?

Lord Henley: My Lords, for the reasons given both by myself in various answers and by my noble friend Lord Elton, it would be wrong to have a blanket ban on sales. Often sales can lead to further and better provision elsewhere.

Baroness Macleod of Borve: My Lords, in view of the fact that we may be disenfranchising hundreds of youngsters who want to play games and take exercise by depriving them of school playing fields, would it not be better if the Secretary of State called in all applications from local authorities to buy playing fields from schools?

Lord Henley: My Lords, that would be a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As I made clear, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has proposed that the Sports Council should always have a statutory consultee status on any planning applications that relate to playing fields. That allows valuable points of the kind to which my noble friend refers to be made.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, here are last night's European football results: Blackburn Rovers nil, Legia Warsaw nil; Glasgow Rangers nil, Juventus four. Is the Minister aware that no less a person than Bobby Robson on Radio 4 this morning agreed that until we have better facilities and training in our primary schools, we are unlikely to improve on disastrous results like those? Will the loss of over 5,000 playing fields since 1979 contribute to our recovery?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord's question is rather ridiculous. To blame the Government

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for our results in the European Cup, or any other competition, really goes beyond what one can accuse the Government of getting right or wrong.

Lord Ironside: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there have been any sale and lease-back arrangements of playing fields so far as concerns GM governors? In such circumstances are those governors able now to retain 100 per cent. of the proceeds instead of having to share them 50-50 with the local authority?

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