HC Deb 15 December 1950 vol 482 cc1512-26

1.7 p.m.

Miss Burton (Coventry, South)

I regret the unfortunate contretemps, but, at least, the matter which I propose to introduce is one which will be supported on all sides of the House, and, if we can forget the last three minutes, perhaps we can get on.

In drawing the attention of the House to this question of additional playing fields accommodation, I should like to say that we are all agreed on the importance of this problem. I want to take the words "playing fields" in their widest sense, so as to include not only the usual playing grounds but also swimming baths or "lidos". The Minister knows that such was my intention. I should like also to find the opinion of the House on the question of having certain accommodation floodlit at night because, if we are to have additional accommodation that is only to be available until dusk we shall certainly not meet our needs. It is not only a question of providing for school children or adults or young people, but of providing for everyone.

I do not know how many hon. Members who are now in the Chamber saw a film which was showing yesterday on the "Communist Youth Rally" in Berlin. I went to see that film, and it seemed to me that, unless we do something attractive and something vigorous for our young people, we have no right to complain if they go into other activities, of which we may not necessarily approve.

Concerning my own personal experience, for the 15 years prior to the war, I was dealing with this question of playing fields accommodation in its widest sense and for all ages, first of all, in the City of Leeds, which, as everyone knows, is highly industrialised and heavily populated and then in London. In Leeds the schools, in common with the schools in many other cities, had access to the city parks, in which they could play games, but I well remember that the playing of games with hard balls was forbidden in many of them because of the need to provide safety for other people walking in the parks. In any case, the children had long distances to go to reach these parks. In those days it was primarily a problem for the less well-to-do sections of the population, whether they were adults or children. I have always thought it very difficult to play games in London unless one had a certain amount of money because, in the centre of the big cities, the necessary facilities are not available.

Before the war, in the London County Council parks, steps were taken which I think were very useful and which might be copied elsewhere in the country. We are all agreed, I am sure, that it is not only a question of providing accommodation but also a question of seeing that the accommodation is used, and in that connection I should like to pay a tribute to the Parks Committee of the London County Council. Going back to the year 1938, the Chairman of the Parks Committee of the London County Council was Mrs. Hugh Dalton, wife of the present Minister of Town and Country Planning, and the Leader of the London County Council was the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Lord President of the Council.

In 1938 we had in the East End of London, as we have now, Victoria Park Lido. This was an excellent swimming pool, with a large surround where games or physical activities could be carried on, and in 1938 it was found that the lido was not being fully used. Through the co-operation of the L.C.C., in this lido in the East End we were able to provide a coach to teach swimming and another leader to teach dancing and physical training. From the moment that was done the Lido was used in its fullest capacity. I have here a copy of "The City and East London Observer" for 6th August, 1938, and the heading is: Lido Club for East Enders—Membership threepence a week. For that threepence it was possible to go into the Lido to swim, to have swimming lessons and to join in the dancing and in the games. At that time there was a considerable amount of financial distress in the East End and for anyone who was unemployed the membership cost one penny a week for himself and his family.

That scheme was a great success and the same experiment was repeated in 1939 in the lido at Parliament Hill Fields in the North of London. That, too, was a great success. I want, therefore, to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to what was done in those lidos and to ask him whether, as far as possible, he would feel able to recommend such policies for adoption throughout the country.

The leaders who were teaching in those lidos were paid but, having worked a great deal with voluntary organisations. I believe that these voluntary organisations must be asked in the future, as in the past, to contribute leaders for this work. I think everyone in the House will agree that, even apart from the health-giving aspects of being taught to swim, the ability to swim is a necessity. I should like to see it compulsory for everyone to learn to swim when they go to school, unless there are health reasons for not doing so.

I turn to the question of lighting these grounds, fields or lidos at night. In 1938–39 the National Fitness Council published a report on the question of floodlighting facilities for games at night. They took examples from the City of London and mentioned the case of elec- trically floodlighting two netball courts at Tottenham. As an enthusiast for netball, which I think is an excellent game for both boys and girls, I should like to point out that the cost of floodlighting those two courts was £100.

I know that we cannot compare today's prices with those of pre-war, but I think it is interesting to note that the cost was not prohibitive. A swimming pool at Enfield was floodlit by gas and the installation cost £372, the area being floodlit covering 1.3 acres. Turning to more modern examples, I see from the "Daily Express" of 27th November that the idea seems to be that the Football Association will authorise the floodlighting of professional football pitches, so it would appear that I am not asking for something which is impossible.

Mr. Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I intervene on this point only. As an enthusiastic swimmer I have always felt how wrong it was to encourage tuition in swimming using the so-called breast stroke. It is an exhausting stroke, outmoded according to current opinion. I hope that, by virtue of the publicity which will be given to the hon. Lady's speech, it will be possible to encourage tuition in the over-arm crawl or trudgen stroke.

Miss Burton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. When you can do anything well in athletics, you do it easily. The difficulty is that when you are learning it is very hard work. At the moment I am learning to skate and I am finding it very difficult. I think that, done well, the breast stroke is a very useful and easy stroke. There is nothing harder than to play games easily.

Perhaps I may move on from there and turn briefly to the City of Coventry, which I have the honour to represent. In that city the existing total space of parks or fields can be regarded as fairly satisfactory but, in common with many other industrial cities, there is a deficiency of playing fields. We have compensations in the use of what we call common lands, but at present in the City of Coventry the amount of public playing fields is in the proportion of 2.3 acres per thousand of the population. We know that that is too little and we propose that it shall be increased to a minimum of 3.2 acres per thousand of the population. I realise that even that is too little, but I would stress that in Coventry there will be additional small areas in the new neighbourhood units.

Perhaps I may pay this tribute to Coventry before I deal with the question of the lack of accommodation. We have in Coventry the Rugger captain of England, a woman cycle champion, and Coventry City at the moment are second in Division II of the Football League. I hope that with more accommodation we shall do better still.

The difficulty is that the question of rateable values raises a very serious problem for the authorities in our cities. I have sympathy with the local authority which pointed out that if all the space required for playing fields were provided, it would mean a three-mile green belt round the city, and we who are speaking so enthusiastically about this subject must accept that problem. Although I have nothing to do with them, I should like to mention three organisations, because I think they are doing a great job in helping with this work. First is the National Playing Fields Association; second is the National Association for Girls' Clubs and Mixed Clubs; and third, and perhaps not so well known, is Coram's Fields who, in the center of London, are trying to meet the multiple needs of playgrounds for children.

Although I know that my right hon. Friend will be willing to give us all the help he can, it will not be much use unless hon. Members put forward definite suggestions. I should like to ask him, therefore, whether the Ministry would do all they can to encourage local authorities and the education authorities in this matter. First, we want more playgrounds and I believe that in our cities, certainly in London and in Coventry, we could make more use of blitzed sites for these playing grounds, if only temporarily, and they could be lit at night. We want more playing fields, and I think we will all agree that this problem not only concerns children at school, but concerns the youngster who has just left school and is not good enough to get into the first team of some organisation. He really is stranded and should get help.

This question does not concern my right hon. Friend only. I have heard of several places where playing fields have been provided but have not been used because no buildings or hutments were allowed to be erected upon them. Where a field is at some distance from the centre of the city, a certain amount of lavatory accommodation has to be provided and also there must be somewhere for the children to change; I do not mean palatial shower rooms; but somewhere where they can hang up their clothes and leave their boots.

Playing fields are required on grounds of health and also because children must have somewhere where they can work off their surplus energy. If they can work off that energy on the playing fields, they are so much safer from road accidents. While additional playing fields are not the whole answer to the problem of juvenile delinquency, they are certainly part of the answer. We talk about the "tough" youngsters, and we have all had them in our clubs in the cities, but their trouble is that they have nothing to do at night, and I am going to be bold and say there is nothing for them to do on Sundays. That is not the fault of the children. The fault is that the provision for them is not there. I am grateful to the Minister for coming here to reply and I ask the House to agree that we need additional playing fields for the people of this country.

1.23 p.m.

Wing Commander Bullus (Wembley, North)

I am happy to associate myself with the plea of the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton). There is no one more fitted than she is to make such a plea. She has mentioned that she comes from the City of Leeds, but she has not mentioned the many honours she has won on the playing fields of the county of broad sporting acres. The hon. Lady mentioned the possibility of floodlighting. I used to train on Headingley Rugby Union ground, Leeds. I used to be very tired of running in the dark and I found that I was one of very few who trained at night. When we installed floodlighting, at a quite nominal cost, I found that the attendance for training purposes represented almost the entire membership of the club. It is possible to play games by floodlight and I have enjoyed many such games in the evening. I hope that this possibility will be well noted.

The general conflict is between more playing fields and the maintenance of existing allotments. The right balance must be struck. We want all the food we can grow at home at this time, but we do need the maximum facilities for a fit nation. I would not advocate reducing the number of allotments we have. Indeed, I feel that it is essential that we should not only maintain the existing allotments, but, where possible, increase their numbers. I know there are conflicting opinions about allotments and playing fields, among the various local authorities in the country, but I believe that we should grow all the food possible.

What should we do then to secure extra playing fields? There are many areas in the country—some of them are cleared bombed sites—unsuitable for growing vegetables but which, with a little labour and a little finance, could provide additional playing areas. The local authorities might explore the possibilities. I am sure the whole House will agree with me that we should like to see the maximum amount of these areas used, especially next year, the Festival of Britain year.

When I was a member of the Leeds City Council before the war we had a form of controlled tipping by the cleansing department which allowed for the eventual provision of playing fields. They were good fields. I have often played on them and enjoyed my "rugger" on them. But there is one danger on these particular fields. On occasions while playing on them I have seen quite a large amount of scrap glass that had risen through the soil to the surface. That can be very dangerous when one is playing rugger, hockey or soccer. I know of cases, not in Leeds, where playing fields have had to be closed because the glass buried in the tip had risen to the surface. If that danger could be avoided, much more could be done by local authorities in controlled tipping to secure eventual use of the ground as playing fields.

I feel sometimes that we do not always make the use we might of existing playing fields in the schools. I know that this is a delicate point and that it is a matter for the schools; and I have had experience on local education committees of trying to persuade headmasters who were proud of the playing fields attached to their schools to allow them to be used by others outside school hours. I urge that local education committees should seek a friendly and co-operative attitude from such masters and that in a limited and specified time these fields might be used by others and even be floodlit.

Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)

Will the hon. and gallant Member agree that the schools eventually belong to the people and that there are governing bodies who might reasonably discipline any uncooperative headmaster?

Wing Commander Bullus

I agree, but it is not confined to public schools. I was a member of the district council at Harrow, an area representing a tenth of the county of Middlesex, yet we had to go to the county council to ask permission to use our own school fields. I feel also that something might be done in the case of golf courses, more particularly where there is a golf course in a built-up area. I think it is possible, for a specified time, to give a certain portion of the golf course over to playing fields. I know it is a delicate matter. I play golf, and there is nothing worse than to see a whole flock of people crossing in the way of one's drive. But the possibilities might be investigated.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South, has raised an important subject and the House will be grateful to her for doing so. We need a fit nation, especially in the days ahead, and for that we require many playing fields.

1.29 p.m.

Mr. Peart (Workington)

I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) for raising this matter. We had hoped on a previous occasion to debate a Motion on this very issue. Today we have managed to have a short Adjournment debate and I shall make my remarks as brief as I promised. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) that we must relate the need for these playing fields to agriculture, not just in the wide sense but to the provision of allotments in our cities. It is necessary to strike the right balance, but it should be remembered that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education who is going to reply to this debate has a major responsibility in this matter.

It is laid down in the Education Act that, in conjunction with the local educational authority, he can provide the various facilities for sport and recreation that have been mentioned by my hon. Friend. I should like to stress that it is the duty of the education authorities and the Government to lead in this matter. There are various voluntary organisations which have played a considerable part in this direction, and I should like to pay my tribute to the National Playing Fields Association who, through their national organisation and their various county committees, have for a long time conducted a campaign for more playing fields for our children. We certainly wish them success in their their work.

We should consider the problem from two points of view. First, we are a sporting nation. Despite all the jeremiads, I still think we have the best footballers and cricketers in the world, and we all welcome the fact that our cricketers put up such a magnificent performance the other week in Australia. We should not be ashamed of our sporting activities, but I still think we shall have better specialists if we improve standards all round. In order to do that we must provide playing fields and, in certain cases, proper coaching facilities.

I understand that the Football Association and the Rugby League, which has a special interest in my own area, are providing facilities in conjunction with the local education authority, but we must have the playing fields. If we can improve general standards, I think we can improve also the standard of the specialist. It is all very well to attend matches, as we do as a great nation, week after week, but we want more people playing. If we aim at that, I am certain we shall have a much healthier community.

I was very glad that my hon. Friend stressed the question of juvenile delinquency. I have always believed that this should be tackled from the point of view not of punishment but of prevention. I think both my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education and the Home Secretary do look at it from that point of view, and I am certain that if we can only provide more playing fields, more clubs and more facilities for recreation, we shall really get at the heart of juvenile delinquency. If I could parody that atrocious saying about the battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton, I would say that the battle against juvenile delinquency can and will be won on the playing fields of Britain. If we can provide more of the facilities that have been mentioned today, we shall really be counteracting juvenile delinquency in our country.

We should consider the problem, therefore from the point of view, first, of our sporting position as a nation and the improvement of standards all round; and, second, juvenile delinquency and the need to have a balanced educational system. After all, we must not think solely in terms of intellect. It is essential that in all our schools, whatever their status, there must be equality of opportunity. I remember that when I was a games master at a little grammar school, a school next door which had not the same status had no facilities such as our children had. That is wrong, and we must try to right it. Therefore, I ask the Government, through the Minister of Education, to give every encouragement—I am certain he will—not only to local authorities but to organisations like the National Playing Fields Association, which are doing such fine work in this direction.

1.34 p.m.

The Minister of Education (Mr. Tomlinson)

I am sorry that it is necessary for me to rise at this stage, because I would certainly have liked to hear other hon. Members who, I know, are interested in this important subject, but we are subject to the rules of procedure. However, perhaps on another occasion we shall be able to go further into the subject.

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) for raising this matter. We all realise its importance, and I have no hesitation in giving general support to the idea of the development of playing fields. They are desirable and helpful in more ways than one, as has already been demonstrated, but nobody can gainsay that they constitute a problem in this island of ours which makes it difficult to go as far as we would all desire to go.

Very often the land which is available in this country, and which could very well be utilised for this purpose, is not in the place where the people want it. There are times when I am travelling in the country in the course of the job which I am attempting to do, and I see vast level spaces of land with not a house for miles. I never pass such a field without saying to myself—I have been a bit of a cricketer in days gone by—"What a lovely cricket field that would make." I know that would be regarded as sacrilege by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, but I can always see some better use to which I think land could be put even than growing wheat—probably because of my prejudices.

I should like to deal with the question to which reference has been made by various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow), on the respective values of different swimming strokes. The only stroke that I have been able to manage is what we call in Lancashire "dogging" it. That is a cross between the side-stroke, the crawl, the breast stroke and everything else. It involves using all the facilities one has in order to keep afloat. While, as Minister of Education, I would not dream of interfering to the extent of making it compulsory for every child to be taught to swim, I think we should all realise the value of it. If one makes compulsory a subject in which a child is particularly interested, one begins to interfere with what I consider to be a most important thing, and that is the freedom of the teacher to determine the syllabus of the school.

It is essential that in the provision of our playing fields we should ensure that women and girls get a fair share of the facilities provided. I am inclined to think—although this question has been raised by a lady Member—that sometimes they do not get all the consideration to which they are entitled when we think of playing fields, playing spaces, the provision of courts, etc. We all think in terms of cricket and football, and we allow the ladies to come in as an exception, as something in the nature of an attraction, and, in spite of my hon. Friend's competence in this direction, we never take them particularly seriously in that sphere. I am afraid that we sometimes think so much in terms of cricket and football that we are apt to put hockey, for instance, in a very inferior place and not make the provision necessary for our women and girls.

I should like to emphasise the necessity of all young people playing. There is only one point I should like to make about this. I have heard a lot about the necessity for becoming a nation of players instead of spectators. I hope that if we are all going to play we do not get the idea that we can continue to play for a long time. The amount of space in this island is just not sufficient and cannot be made sufficient to enable everybody to play. I think there is something to be said for the individual who plays for a short period of his life, because he then becomes what I would call an intelligent spectator. I think that one of the things that we need to cultivate today is the art of watching as well as the art of playing. I am in the habit of visiting playing fields on Saturday afternoons when I get the opportunity, which is not often, and I study the crowd as well as the players. I know that the best players are always in the grandstand. The comments which I hear from time to time lead me to the conclusion that some education is needed on the part of the spectators as well as on the part of the players. We need to be able to watch intelligently as well as to play intelligently, because I think that is to our benefit.

I want to say a word of encouragement to those people who in days past have done so much voluntary work in this direction and have created what I call a consciousness, as a result of which the Government have been compelled to listen to the claims of playing fields associations and other organisations. That is the way things have developed in this country. People think deeply about a matter and create a consciousness, and that consciousness having been created, the nation sees the necessity for the provision of what is required.

I should like also to say a word on behalf of a body of people who are, I think, sometimes lost sight of. Every Saturday morning in this country there are literally thousands of teachers who spend their time seeing that the boys who play cricket in summer and football in winter are properly supervised, and one of the joys of my life is to visit a really good boys' football or cricket match, which would not be possible had it not been for the devoted services of a good many people whom we seldom hear anything about and who have devoted much unpaid time to that service. Something has been said about the necessity for using our playing fields more and introducing floodlighting. I am not going to say whether I think it is an advantage to play games in floodlighting. I have only seen one match played in floodlighting, and that was a baseball game in America. Maybe I was prejudiced, but on that occasion I found the floodlighting far more attractive than the game itself. Whether it is possible to do anything in that direction or not, I do not know. I know that experiments are being made and that the London County Council have done something in that direction in an experimental way, and, indeed, that they have gone rather beyond the experimental stage.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that on the Continent many of our amateur football sides have played in floodlighting. I was at The Hague and played for the Swallows 20 years ago.

Mr. Tomlinson

I am not suggesting that for purposes of staging matches of that kind this may not be a good thing. What I am pointing out is that I think it is necessary, if we are to use playing fields to the full extent in that way, that there should be a limit to the play that takes place on the field itself. I am anxious to call the attention of the House to that point because the majority of the fields actually in use in this country are suffering more from over-playing than from under-playing. That, I know, is the case with regard to the grass field rather than the macadam asphalt or concrete playing ground.

I am all in favour of experiments being made, and I have encouraged, among other things, the provision of concrete pitches for cricket. I want to be quite honest by saying that I do not myself like them. I would much rather play on grass. When we used to talk about hard centres and hard surfaces, I used to think that they were something that the rain would run off or something that was constantly kept dry. The only hard surface that I played on as a youngster was a paved back street where I learned the rudiments of cricket. That had the disadvantage of being not only hard but uneven, and it gave me an opportunity of meeting that kind of difficulty which was not provided on grass fields. Care should be taken by the people responsible to see that the individuals for whom the playing fields are primarily obtained are the last sufferers when overplaying has taken place.

Someone has suggested that we ought to consider the possibility of using up the spaces that are available. We have considered that possibility. The hon. and gallant Member for Wembley, North (Wing Commander Bullus) suggested that there might reasonably be an approach not only to the people who control their own playing fields, but to the education authorities and the local authorities which are responsible for open spaces, so that there might be a kind of combination of the two in the utilisation of the playing fields.

As Minister of Education, whenever the question of utilising school playing fields for other purposes has come forward, I have regarded it as my duty to safeguard first the children for whom the playing fields have been provided. Whenever there is any question of closing down playing fields through over-playing, they are always closed down at times when the youngsters in the schools are not playing, rather than at times when those outside are playing. For all these reasons, I think it is necessary for us to see that the suggestions which are brought forward are advantageous not only to one particular section but to all concerned.

The hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South, asked me not only to be generally sympathetic towards this idea but to encourage local authorities in this work. Since I became the Minister responsible for the implementation of the 1944 Act, we have done a great deal. I do not like quoting figures on occasions like this, but for the purposes of the record, I should like to tell the House what we have done in that direction. During the five years since we started off after the war, my Department has offered £1,048,000 in grants towards 975 local public playing field schemes—approximately £1,000 per scheme. During the 10 months ended 31st October of this year—a very difficult period—we have offered a little over £100,000 in respect of 213 schemes; in other words, about £470 per scheme.

I do not want to pretend that that is anything like adequate. Our grants are small in comparison with the cost and they demand a great effort on the part of local people. Our progress in the present circumstances is bound to be slow, but we are trying to encourage steady development during these difficult times. That is the reason why, although we have had to cut out to a large extent any building schemes that were required in connection with playing fields, we have, wherever it was possible, assisted the local authority to the extent of £1,000 to provide these schemes and establish development in that direction.

We have done that primarily because we believe, as has been said in the House on several occasions today, that it is advantageous not only from the standpoint of physical health but as part and parcel of the education of a normal being, and because it will, I think, help in solving the problem of juvenile delinquency, about which we are hearing so much.