HC Deb 21 December 1984 vol 70 cc739-46 1.30 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

This may be the only opportunity that I ever get to speak at the Opposition Dispatch Box, so I have seized that opportunity.

My reason for seeking an Adjournment debate on sport in London was the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who is responsible for sport, during Question Time last month. He said: Only in the last 12 to 18 months has the GLC started to show some interest in sport in the metropolis. The London boroughs and the metropolitan districts are infinitely better prepared to know what is required at local level. The GLC has only come along later to shell out our constituents' money for wrong projects." — [Official Report, 28 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 913.] That statement was as profoundly oblivious to the truth as it was offensive to myself and my colleagues at county hall.

The Minister's apparent ignorance is exceeded only by his malice towards the GLC, but that is typical of Department of the Environment Ministers who try to cover up their appallingly weak case for the abolition of the GLC by a combination of bluster and insults.

However, there is no excuse for ignorance on the part of the Under-Secretary, who is to reply to the debate, or his civil servants, so I shall start by telling the hon. Gentleman what the GLC does for sport in London. He may stop me at any time either to identify what he described as "wrong projects" or to apologise for his comments.

When the Labour party won the 1981 GLC elections, I became chairman of the arts and recreation committee. I asked my vice-chairman, Mr. Peter Pitt, to take over responsibility for sport in London. He performed that task well and is now the chairman of the arts and recreation committee, so sport is well served by having him in that position in county hall.

However, although Mr. Pitt was the first person at county hall to be given specific responsibilities for sport, the London county council first established county hall's involvement with sport. The LCC started London sports championships in 1946; the GLC has built on that and organises 11 major championships ranging from cyclocross to swimming. The LCC started tennis coaching in the parks in 1951; the GLC had greatly expanded those schemes.

I must assume that when the Minister made his comments he knew that the GLC had met 50 per cent. of the running costs of Crystal palace—currently about £1 million from county hall — since the national sports centre was built in 1964. Indeed, Crystal palace is a GLC park.

The sports holding of the GLC includes two athletics stadia, four athletics tracks, 231 football pitches, including those at Hackney marshes, which has the greatest concentration of football pitches in Europe, 41 cricket pitches, 14 rugby pitches, 11 hockey pitches, three swimming baths, seven boating lakes, 116 tennis courts, seven bowling greens, nine horse riding facilities and two golf courses. Most of those facilities are located in the GLC's 5,500 acres of parks and open spaces and in the 11,000 acres of green belt land.

The GLC currently spends £41 million on parks, open spaces and recreation. That should be compared, for example, with the £7 million that the Sports Council has spent on sport in London over the past six years. The GLC is spending £41 million on recreation in this current year. But in the Local Government Bill, which is now in Committee, there is unfortunately no recognition whatever of that enormous contribution made by the GLC, or of the larger contribution, in financial terms, made by the metropolitan county councils.

One feels that the Minister has let down sport very badly. The Minister for the Arts was able to obtain an extra £34 million of central Government funding for the arts after the arts lobby really went to work on him; but I believe that the Minister with responsibility for sport has let down the sports community by singularly failing to secure additional funding, or certainly failing until now to announce what funding he has got. Frankly, he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Apart from the Minister's failures, there are other reasons why sport does not seem to rate so highly in the priorities of this Government, or indeed in those of previous Governments. First, sport cannot mobilise the powerful establishment figures that the arts world can. There is no real sports lobby as such. Secondly, the Sports Council has proved itself to be toothless and ineffective in acting for sport in the political arena. Perhaps that is because too many administrators in sport are conservative with a small and a large "C". Thirdly, sport simply does not have the standing in our political community that it deserves.

That is in stark contrast to the situation in many other industrialised countries where sport is given a much higher political priority than Britain gives it. Fourthly, sports activities are largely working-class based in a society where middle-class values tend to predominate. In other words, we know very well what the Prime Minister thinks about Shakespeare and opera, but up to now we do not know what she thinks about sport. Perhaps one day she will let us know.

None of those reasons exonerates the Minister from the comments that he made in the House on 28 November. He seemed to assume that the London boroughs would take up the £41 million that the GLC is currently spending on sports and recreation facilities in London. That is nonsense; it is as nonsensical as when the Minister for the Arts said that the boroughs would take up the GLC's spending on the arts. But he changed his mind—or had his mind changed for him. However, the Minister responsible for sport seems to be just as blatant about that statement now as he was when he made it.

How can local authorities take up this enormous added burden? They have got rate capping. They have their own targets and there are also the penalties. We must continually bear in mind that sport rates as a discretionary service provided by local authorities and not as a mandatory one. Thus, if there is to be pressure on different services — as there undoubtedly will be given rate capping and further reductions in the expenditure of local authorities—it will be the discretionary areas of council expenditure that go. I am afraid that that will include sport.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will say how he feels that the boroughs can in any way replace the GLC. For example, Mile End and Burgess parks were created by the GLC over several decades. The Lea Valley park would never have been created without a massive input from the GLC. The Brixton recreation centre is somewhat dear to my heart, because I was a member of Lambeth borough council when that project first came up. Lambeth has had to ask the GLC to take over responsibility for the centre, because, if Lambeth had to run it, it would soak up 40 per cent. of its amenity services budget, and put 4p on the rates in Lambeth. If the GLC is abolished, will Lambeth be asked to take back the Brixton recreation centre in 1986?

The Minister must address his mind to the whole question of sports centres in London—assuming that he can even be bothered to listen to me. It is quite obvious that the boroughs have those sports centres within their boundaries, but the centres themselves are regional in nature. Yesterday the GLC agreed a major package amounting to £1.75 million to support the construction of indoor sports halls in Peckham, Greenwich and Barking, and the upgrading of the Terence McMillan stadium in my own borough of Newham. I hope that the Minister will welcome that decision by the GLC—that is, if he can ever bring himself to say anything nice about the GLC. Because of the Government's expenditure restraints, especially on capital, local authorities would never have been able to consider the building of indoor sports halls without the support of the GLC. Will the Minister tell me whether the GLC was wrong to provide money for those facilities?

We need to know what the Government propose for those regional sports centres in London should the GLC be abolished. There is no mention of them in the Local Government Bill. If the Government manage to force the Bill through against good advice from both inside and outside the House, there will be calamitous results. We can trace what is happening already. For example, Hillingdon—a good Tory borough—closed the Uxbridge pool in 1982, despite 12,000 visits a year. It was reopened in 1984 by community groups with the assistance of the GLC. During the first eight months 48,000 visits have been recorded. Hillingdon intends to close the south Ruislip leisure centre on 31 December, yet that centre contains the only purpose-built gymnastic facilities in London. Only the GLC can rescue it. It is all very well to look at Albanian, Russian and American gymnasts performing for our television audiences, but what are we doing for gymnastics in London? We are closing down the only purpose-built facilities, and that is disgraceful.

Hammersmith and Fulham, another Tory borough, is considering selling the Eternit wharf sports centre and the Broadway squash centre. Will that authority be able or willing to take over responsibility for the West London stadium and Wormwood Scrubs should the GLC be abolished? Both those facilities are regional. It may be that the Conservative privateers are happy that local authorities should sell sports facilities, but unfortunately all that does is to reduce the access available to the poorest members of our community, especially the unemployed youth. The Scarman report had something to say about that, and I shall refer to it later.

The Minister may say that there will be plenty of cross-borough co-operation. I shall give him an example of that. In 1974 the GLC devolved Beckenham place park in south-east London to the boroughs — one third to Bromley and two thirds to Lewisham. To date, only Lewisham has contributed—it is bearing the full cost. What then are the chances of Barnet and Camden managing Hampstead heath on an amicable basis?

I wish to tell the Minister about some of the GLC's recent sports initiatives. He may think that many of them are wrong, and he can stop me and detail them if he wants to do so. The Scarman report influenced the GLC's policy on sports provision within the inner city. Scarman laid great stress on the role of recreational facilities. With 400,000 unemployed in London, clearly the provision of sports facilities as an ameliorative resource is something on which we must all agree.

The Government set up Action Sport in 1981 through the Sports Council. Again, due to cash limitations, the Sports Council has been unable to develop in the way that it might want. The GLC has given a grant to the Sports Council to help with the development of tennis and cricket initiatives in London. I understand that the Sports Council intends to give a further six months' funding for Action Sport, but the reaction from Hammersmith and Fulham is that it is not prepared to include such projects in long-term budgeting because of Government expenditure cuts and uncertainty. The fact is that the position in London is looking very bad, even before abolition.

The Sports Council, with which the GLC has a close relationship, developed its regional strategy with considerable assistance from the GLC planning staff. We were able to identify major areas of recreational deprivation in London. It would take a regional stategic authority like the GLC to tackle those problems in conjunction with the boroughs.

Among many other aspects of sport, the GLC has provided £1.8 million in individual grants to sports bodies during 1984 — for example, £100,000 to the British Olympic appeal and £68,000 to set up Sports Line for London, a telephone information service covering the whole of London. In the current year the GLC has given £55,000 to the Sports Aid Foundation, an organisation which I am sure the Minister supports. It does a great deal of splendid work in developing young sporting prospects. The London boroughs have given so far this year £350 to the foundation as opposed the GLC's £55,000.

The council has recently launched a series of major pilot schemes to encourage greater participation in sports by the disabled. It is developing a "football in the community" programme. The programme started at Fulham and it will be extended to other professional clubs in London.

I could list dozens of other grants and initiatives which have been made and taken by the GLC in sport. I shall give the Minister a copy of the council's reaction to the impact on sport in London should the GLC be abolished. The document is entitled "Recreation in Ruins". If he reads it, it might prevent him from making any more fatuous remarks about my council and its role in sport in London.

When the Minister reads "Recreation in Ruins", he will learn that the GLC is the largest local authority in the country that is providing sports facilities. The chairman of the council's arts and recreation committee, Mr. Peter Pitt, was correct when he said: If the abolition Bill is enacted, it will have a disastrous effect on recreation in the capital.

I shall conclude by asking the Minister some specific questions. I wish to be constructive. First, what extra resources will he be making available to the London boroughs when they take over the GLC's sports and recreation facilities should the GLC be abolished? Secondly, when will he be bringing forward proposals for a "limited" extension of central funding by the Sports Council, as promised by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 11 April? How much will this "limited" extension amount to and when are the proposals to be put before us? Thirdly, which organisations has the Minister consulted over the future of sports facilities, events and schemes that are of "wider than local interest"? Those were the words used by his right hon. Friend on 11 April. If the Minister has consulted, what was the response of the organisations? Have the local sports councils of London been consulted? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to meet a delegation from the London sports council's standing committee?

Fourthly, what is to be the future of the Brixton recreation centre and other GLC-funded sports centres in London which are regional in character? Who, for example, will take responsibility for Hackney marshes and the Herne hill stadium, which Southwark borough council has said it cannot afford to do? Fifthly, what is to be the future of Thamesday and the south bank weekend, each of which has attracted 300,000 visitors? What does the future hold for the Greater London horse show and the 11 greater London sports championships if the GLC is abolished?

Sixthly, the Minister said that the London marathon would be safe with the Government. Will the Government be prepared to provide funds equal to the GLC's effort to ensure that the marathon continues? Will it really be safe in the Government's hands? I remind the Minister that the previous Tory administration at county hall under the leadership of Sir Horace Cutler initiated a feasibility study on the possibility of holding the Olympic games in docklands. The present GLC wishes to host a future Commonwealth games. However, bids have to be made by the world's cities for these major international events. Who will speak for London if the GLC is abolished and there is no one authority speaking for sport and other areas of social activity and taking a citywide view?

The Minister has failed miserably to defend sport from the onslaught threatened by the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. The Local Government Bill scarcely acknowledges the existence of sports facilities. However, when the Minister answers my questions the sports world may feel less threatened than at present. If nothing else, I hope that I have demonstrated how ill-informed and gratuitously insulting the Minister was on 28 November when talking about GLC provision for sports facilities in London. I hope that he has learnt something this afternoon. I hope, too, that he will have the grace to withdraw his previous remarks and apologise to the House for what he said.

1.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) on his elevation to the Front Bench. He sells himself short if he thinks that he will not appear there again—I am sure that he will. The hon. Gentleman must realise that the time he has left me to speak will hardly allow me to answer all his points. I do not for one moment blame the hon. Gentleman for taking two thirds of the time of this debate.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his choice of subject, because this timing is all-important. His interest in sport, like that of the GLC in recent years, seems to be of recent origin. It is clear from his remarks that, to most people who genuinely believe in sport—not politics and sport — the greatest threat comes from the present occupants of county hall. Those who are genuinely concerned about sport believe that many events in recent weeks have proved that much of the ratepayers' money has been squandered in what has been described outside this place—I substantiate the point—as a sordid attempt to defend the GLC's record in a variety of spheres.

The hon. Gentleman has not provided us with a specific figure for that expenditure, part of which went to sport. For many people in London, it amounted to no more than a massive bulk purchase of whitewash. The hon. Gentleman should think about that point. I understand the difficulty the Socilaists and their colleagues have about county hall. The GLC was not set up some 20 years ago to oversee sport in the 32 London boroughs. The GLC has certainly had a part to play but it has not had a duty to oversee sport. In the past, the GLC has had a contribution to make. The fact is that, during the past 20 or so years, the GLC has lacked the historical expertise that is prevalent in the boroughs and the governing bodies.

We must oversee sport not only in London but throughout the country. We have the Sports Council, which was set up 10 or 11 years ago, and a regional council on sport and recreation which does great and good work in the south-east of England. The Sports Council has produced a strategy, "The Next Ten Years", and the Greater London and south-east regional council on sport has produced a report on sport in London and the south-east. The report is an excellent document, and I pay tribute to the work that has been done. The recommendations must now be implemented, and I believe that they would be better implemented by the local London boroughs.

The Government's record on sport generally is one of which we are justifiably proud. Since 1979 we have doubled the Sport Council's grant-in-aid to more than £30 million. My Department's contribution to the urban programme and the derelict land grant runs at more than £23 million a year. London has received a handsome share of that money. Since 1979 the Sports Council has made available nearly £8 million in grants and loans for well over 1,000 projects in our capital. No doubt the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will be delighted to learn that the London borough of Newham has received well over £500,000 for 16 capital projects, and that is just one small example of the assistance given.

We hear from the GLC of a range of statistics about its contribution to sport and recreation. The GLC's contribution is very recent. Let us be clear about the facts. The GLC's expenditure of £40 million a year, or whatever the lofty figure with which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West currently seeks to impress us, is not what it appears to be. At least £20 million a year goes on parks, tending flower beds and such services. They are important activities, and I certainly do not decry them. I take as much pleasure in London's parks as the hon. Gentleman does. He should not present this work and its annual costs as going to sport in London. The hon. Gentleman's figures tend to encompass the arts and recreation at its broadest. I ask the hon. Gentleman to concentrate the debate—today and in the future—on sport in London.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Macfarlane

I ask the hon. Gentleman to allow me to continue, because I wish to place a number of points on the record. Obviously, because of the many questions asked, I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

The help for voluntary groups and projects that is trumpeted forth from county hall amounts, on the figures we have, to no less than £500,000. I certainly would not criticise individual grants, as the hon. Gentleman appears to ask me to do. They are mostly small grants, but they appear to be highly selective. They appear to be dotted around the London boroughs on the scattergun technique. Our criticism would be that such grants are a strange use of the funds and powers of a county council. Helping small clubs and schemes is surely a matter for the borough concerned. They have the necessary local knowledge. My criticism is that the GLC is highly selective and does not genuinely help all sport in our capital city. That is the change that we seek; we see no need for a massive bureaucracy such as the GLC to assist sport in minor ways by a few small grants. The boroughs should do it. That is our policy. They have the knowledge.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the GLC's contribution to Crystal palace. That has a strange ring to it. I have much more confidence in the future of the Crystal palace under the London borough of Bromley. It is a substantial regional facility, and the GLC has contributed significant funds to it. It is also, of course, a national centre. We propose, therefore, to enable the Sports Council to take over all the running and operation of Crystal palace to maintain its national and international place and reputation.

It is unfortunate but, alas, typical, that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should have decided, within recent months, to use such a popular facility as Crystal palace as a new stage for their threats and intimidation, and, as people involved in sport have said to me, what border on bully-boy tactics. The GLC promised grants and support and now it is going back on its promises. I ask whether that is consistent with the fine words that we have heard today about the GLC's contribution to sport.

Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying attention to the important role that the boroughs play. It is important to place on record the fact that the boroughs, despite the difficulties that they face, have increased the amount of money that they have spent on sport and recreation during the past year. The figures coming from the GLC show that that amounts to over £160 million. The importance of strategy has been mentioned, but there is no sporting strategy coming from county hall. The fundamental strategy for sport in London is participation, action sport and sport for Londoners. Those are the Sports Council's strategic priorities for the development for sport not just in London but throughout the country.

Mr. Macfarlane

My hon. Friend is perhaps better qualified than anyone in the House to talk about sport. He is a member of the Sports Council and he is a London Member who has represented his country at the highest level.

The fine words that we heard from the GLC spokesman this morning ring rather hollow. The GLC was not set up to cater for a strategy for sport in London. That is the problem that has confused so many of the people, who are responsible for local government and those who are on the governing bodies of sport. They are the best placed to run their sports at all levels.

My major criticism is that the GLC has sought to introduce politics into sport in a way that we have never seen before. It has pulled out of supporting our national centre at Crystal palace. It is not helping those people who represent and live in that part of London. That is sad. When it comes to it, I think that the GLC will sacrifice the interests of a major sporting facility in London simply because of political expediency. That is a poor example.

There have been many wild and exaggerated claims in recent months about the future of the London marathon. In recent years, many people have thought that it has been a highly successful event. I congratulate the major organisers, Sir Christopher Brasher and John Disley. They have made it the success that it is. Zetters pools has provided the use of a computer for processing all the applications.

Mr. Tony Banks

What about the GLC?

Mr. Macfarlane

It is nothing to do with the GLC. It is a wonderful event, which has been run by an organisation, and my Department has promised every assistance to the organisers since the first London marathon. The Department offered them one of its royal parks and the use of various routes through its royal parks.

The Government have also taken the lead elsewhere by stimulating investment in major new facilities. The Olsen shed project, which I launched in September this year, is a magnificent new project in docklands which arguably will be one of the finest centres in north-west Europe. It is a partnership, with money provided through the Government. They have contributed £3.2 million in a consortium of major national companies and the athletics governing body. I shall give further details in due course when I take up many of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. Early next year we shall be announcing—as we have for the past couple of years — pound-for-pound schemes, with the Government providing money with the private sector. Action sport has been a huge success here and in Birmingham. It has enabled 3,000 opportunities to be developed.

With the Sports Council and the regional council on sport and recreation, the structure is there, together with the 32 London boroughs. They are the ones who are best placed to know what is best. It is obvious that there is still a great deal to be done for sport in London, as, indeed, in most of our capital cities, but the Government are alive and alert to the measures that have to be introduced.

The demand for new facilities grows daily as leisure time increases. I agree on that with the hon. Gentleman. The Government recognise how important recreation is to the social fabric of our capital city, but, unlike the GLC, we have achieved a great deal in the past three or four years, and we shall continue so to do. The most important thing is to create the right structure outside politics and let sport run itself. The Sports Council and the regional council on sport and recreation are the experts. The hon. Gentleman and his acolytes in county hall are not.