HC Deb 28 March 1990 vol 170 cc491-4 3.37 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove from local authorities the power to dispose of land used as playing fields, except in circumstances where ownership is passed on for continued use as playing fields to a recreational association of charitable status under the terms of the Recreational Charities Act 1958.

We have all heard of the man who said, "Whenever I feel like taking violent exercise I go to bed and stay there until I feel better." However, there is no doubt that a healthy body aids the mind to be healthy too. Therefore, I think that people who practise sports or keep themselves fit have a healthy mind and a healthy body to boot.

There are two dangers in sport at the moment. First, some local education authorities have for a long time discouraged competitive sport. I number among them the Inner London education authority which, during the past 10 years, has largely discouraged competitive games within school sport. That authority has now changed its position completely after conducting a thorough and careful investigation, and it is now in favour of competitive sports in schools.

Another example of the disastrous discouragement of competitive games is the headmistress in Bristol who banned an egg and spoon race on school sports day because she thought that it would encourage undue competitiveness in children. Nothing could be more absurd. That type of attitude has damaged sport in schools no end. Eight out of ten children in schools today will not keep up a sport after leaving school; therefore, sport in schools needs every possible encouragement. In addition, with our test team poised on the brink of a possible great victory in the West Indies at this moment, we can see the sheer pleasure for the nation of producing successful international teams. We hope that our soccer team, too, will be successful this evening.

The second danger to sport is the selling of playing fields for building. When playing fields are sold, an amenity is lost which may never be replaced, and the environment is permanently damaged. Competitive sport in schools is regaining popularity, thanks in part to the widespread support of many hon. Members, including the sponsors of the Bill—among them my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey), to whom I express my great appreciation. But we still have some way to go because playing fields are continuing to disappear for building.

It is said that an area the size of the Isle of Wight is lost every year. That is a huge acreage to lose, bearing in mind the fact that the National Playing Fields Association says that we should have six acres per thousand of the population. Just to achieve that statistic, which is small enough, we should need an extra 6,304 acres of playing fields in the south-east, an extra 2,793 acres in London, an extra 791 acres on Merseyside and an extra 974 acres in the west midlands.

Anyone who seeks to oppose the Bill will have to examine his or her conscience and realise that to do so will be to deny opportunities for sport to our children and to adult members of the community. That is the responsibility the House faces.

In an Adjournment debate on 12 February, the hon. Member for Vauxhall raised a number of these issues in a remarkable speech and kindly allowed me to refer to sports facilities in my constituency. I shall mention those within the broad national context, because the Bill is concerned with playing fields right across the land. In my constituency, Ealing council is seeking to dispose of 17 acres of playing fields at Cayton road for building development. They are in a heavily built-up area with no other leisure facilities for children or the community, and they are absolutely vital to the community.

I understand that the borough is seeking to acquire the substantial playing fields and facilities at the Warren Farm sports complex, but it must be understood that that facility will not serve the neighbourhood of Cayton road. It is too far away and there are no public transport facilities. Moreover, the schools that use the Cayton road playing fields do not want to transfer to Warren Farm and nor do the public. The two sites are not interchangeable.

The loss of local facilities will be particularly hard on the young who require not only somewhere close to home where they can play and practise informally but somewhere to spend a few minutes with their friends playing a game. Most hon. Members have had the pleasure of doing that. The Cayton road playing fields must remain playing fields, and my Bill will secure their future.

Educational and community playing fields acquired through the public purse require further protection, given that they are disappearing at the rate that I have described. The Government are due to produce a much-needed consultative planning guidance note on planning for sport. They have also recently published a consultative paper proposing changes to deemed consent planning procedures whereby local authorities can grant themselves planning permission for more profitable forms of development in advance of the sale of playing fields.

Do these steps go far enough? I believe not. I propose that local authorities be prevented from disposing of playing fields. Some may consider that an excessive and inflexible requirement, but there is a duty on all of us to look beyond the 20th century and the early 21st century. Land lost for building or for any other purpose is lost for ever, and that should be on the conscience of anyone who opposes the Bill. Future generations will not thank us if we take the short-term view and allow the sporting endowment of a century to be frittered away.

The only way of safeguarding land for public recreation and sport is to establish charitable trusts for a particular area under the Recreational Charities Act 1958. If a local authority wants to dispose of playing fields, it should be allowed to do so only in circumstances in which their use as outdoor playing space is legally assured. Provision should be made for such land to be disposed of to appropriately constituted recreational charities—and not for either private or public building, ever. The land can then continue to be used as playing fields, and will become subject to the charities Act and to the oversight and control of the Charity Commissioners. The Bill will enable people with an interest in the sports facilities in their neighbourhood to take the initiative and to exercise self-help.

In the longer term, my Bill will establish a partnership with local government in introducing expertise and new potential sources of financial support. It will also increase the likelihood of reductions in public expenditure, so that money can be beneficially released for the development of other recreational and community initiatives. The Bill is not mandatory. Its purpose is to protect the recreational or playing fields land bank that is our heritage in such a way that local authorities can, if they choose, transfer the ownership of such land at reasonable cost to responsible bodies within their own communities. The public interest and public benefit of any such transfer will be guaranteed by the limited scope of disposal to recreational charities only.

This nation has a particular duty to our children, and to those who are no longer children but who enjoy sport, to ensure that facilities are available to learn sports, and to enhance public enjoyment of them, at all levels and ages, by those of every creed.

3.47 pm
Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

I do not take second place to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) in my zeal to ensure that the existing playing field stock is not only sustained but substantially expanded. I myself was a schoolboy sports enthusiast, and I remain an ardent supporter of sport in general.

I oppose the Bill because, although the hon. Member for Ealing, North raises a point of general principle that no right hon. or hon. Member would oppose, he could not resist the temptation to let fly and seriously to attack the Labour-controlled London borough of Ealing, despite the difficulties that confronts it at this time. It is well known in the locality that the hon. Member has been involved in a running battle with Ealing borough council for a considerable time.

The school playing fields to which the hon. Gentleman referred are connected with Ealing Green boys' school in my constituency, with which I have had a great deal to do over many years. With my encouragement, groups of boys from that school come to see debates and 10 o'clock Divisions in this House. From time to time, I visit the school to explain the workings of the House—although occasionally, I find that difficult to do. Never in all those years have I heard any complaint from the school or its headmaster about the local authority's plans for the playing fields of which the hon. Member for Ealing, North spoke.

I wish to put on record the practical difficulties faced by the London borough of Ealing and its plans to allow the Notting Hill housing association to develop 10 of the 17 acres of the Cayton road playing fields for social housing. The rest of the site, which is currently underused grassland, will be developed into a public park. The site is currently used as a sports ground by Ealing Green high school and is some distance from the school. It is not open to the public and has no ecological merit. The council proposes to relocate the school's playing fields if a suitable alternative site can be found, and there is a strong chance of that.

No relocation proposals will be considered without extensive consultation and the school can expect to remain at Cayton road for some time. There was extensive consultation on the proposals last year, including a public meeting organised by the planning and economic development department of the borough council.

On 22 June, the Department of the Environment issued a direction preventing planning permission from being granted. That may have something to do with pressure from the hon. Member for Ealing, North, who will have quite a struggle to retain his seat because of the poll tax. People in flats and young couples who have taken on mortgages on their houses will struggle to pay twice as much under the community charge—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must not widen the debate into that.

Mr. Bidwell

I digress, and I shall now return to the subject.

The additional housing that will be provided will help to combat the homelessness crisis and reduce the burden of the bed and breakfast bill on local ratepayers. Ealing has 1,700 people in temporary accommodation and 9,500 households on council waiting lists. The council has been told by central Government to provide 9,000 new homes in the borough. There is a great scarcity of land for private and public development. At the same time, under the proposals a new park will be opened for public use, and Ealing Green high school will be relocated to an equally suitable site.

No decision on the Cayton road application has yet been made, and the views of local people will be fully considered. The London borough of Ealing will consult Ealing Green high school about finding a suitable site. The public will save because such housing will relieve the colossal cost of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Those are the facts.

I have been looking up the record of the hon. Member for Ealing, North in debates. He warmly supported the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1981 against anxieties expressed by some Opposition Members. Locally, he is regarded as the ooslam bird who tries to fly in all directions simultaneously and he will come unstuck because of those antics today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Richard Tracey, Mr. Denis Howell, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Miss Kate Hoey, Mr. David Amess, Mr. John Carlisle, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Phillip Oppenheim, Mr. David Evennett and Mr. David Evans.