HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1033-41 12.30 pm
Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

As we rapidly approach World cup kick-off time, if, by some miracle, football fans could divert their attention from that, they would undoubtedly cheer on the Government in their actions to implement their manifesto pledge to stop the sale of playing fields, which schools and communities need. Where will we find the next Alan Shearer—or, perhaps I should say, the next Duncan Edwards, who started his football career in Dudley schools—if we concrete over all our school playing fields? I am glad that the Government are giving the issue their serious and determined attention.

The Government's actions to date have focused on local authority-owned playing fields. I should like to raise the issue of privately owned sports grounds and highlight a loophole in the law that allows their owners to take them out of public use and use scorched-earth tactics, deliberately allowing the grounds to go to rack and ruin and, in effect, turning them into bomb sites in an attempt to get planning permission.

As I understand it, there is nothing in the town and country planning Acts or other legislation to prevent owners from deliberately and systematically dismantling or demolishing properties used for recreational purposes. There is nothing in the landlord and tenant Acts to prevent owners from refusing to renew a lease to football or other sporting clubs. National planning policy guidance does not help; nor does the local development planning process. The planning system can prevent a change in usage from sport to commercial or housing development, but it cannot prevent owners from stopping all sporting activity on their property.

There is a growing national problem. Privately owned sports grounds are being taken out of recreational use and sold to developers who put the assets into a land bank until they can get planning permission for housing or commercial development. The only game now being played at those grounds is a waiting game as owners wait for the community to get sick to the back teeth of the dereliction that they have created and for the local authority to agree to a planning application, which will allow the owners to make a financial killing.

I shall illustrate that general problem with two specific examples in my constituency. The first is Round Oak stadium. The site was originally owned by the Earl of Dudley, and I understand that he donated it for use by the workers at the local steel mill. It has been used as a sports ground since at least the 1920s by successive generations of steelworkers and their families. The stadium was built up to include a football pitch, a covered stand and terracing, a substantial clubhouse—which was used by organisations such as Age Concern for tea dances and other events—and a bowling green. Cricket, netball and tennis have all been played there. The facilities were there for the local community to use and it was rightly proud of them.

The ground has been paid for many times over with the blood, sweat and tears of the community, particularly the steelworkers, in Brierley Hill, Brockmoor and Pensnett. With the closure of the steelworks in the early 1980s, problems started to arise. British Steel began to look for somebody to take over the running of the sports ground and, in 1986, was in discussions with Dudley metropolitan borough council, which helped to obtain a grant of £35,000 from the Sports Council to fund partly the purchase of the ground. If Dudley council had purchased and taken control of the site, none of the present problems of dereliction would have occurred.

However, a gaping hole appeared in the pitch at Dudley Town football club. Such holes appear with depressing regularity in the black country, where there are many old mine workings. Obviously, Dudley Town football club could not play at the ground and looked around for a home. With the council's assistance, it was agreed that the Sports Council grant would be transferred to the club, and it took ownership of the Round Oak stadium. It was explicitly intended at that time that the football club—a duly constituted members' club—would hold the land in trust, and a restrictive covenant, which formed part the sale agreement, stated that the site should be used only as a community sports ground and social club for the next 80 years. That restrictive covenant is still in force.

Problems have arisen since 1994 when Dudley Town's duly constituted members' club transferred its assets and liabilities to a private limited company owned by two local business men—Philip Edwards and Trevor Lester. The circumstances surrounding the transfer were, to say the least, not entirely satisfactory. At that time, the club had estimated debts of £100,000. Those were more than covered by the asset of the ground, but members felt coerced into agreeing to the transfer of ownership. They were told: if this proposal is not accepted the liabilities of the club then fall upon you the members". That was a deliberate use of scare tactics by the two new owners and it is indicative of some of the tactics that they have employed since then.

The ground was transferred to Philip Edwards and Trevor Lester in May 1994 and it seems that from that point they aimed to market it as a development site. A deal was quickly concluded with a developer to purchase the site for £1.3 million if planning permission was obtained. The original planning application is interesting. Philip Edwards and Trevor Lester tried to get local community support for it by saying that Dudley Town football club was in debt and the only way to ensure its survival was to sell the ground. The fact that the club is still playing proves that that was not true.

The business men tried to persuade local residents that if the plan did not go ahead, they would have to turn the clubhouse into a night club, or the whole property would be sold, and 20 or 24 floodlit five-a-side soccer pitches would be created on the site. That threat was also a deliberate use of scare tactics, and shows that the owners have no regard for the local community.

Dudley council, to give it credit, stuck to its guns and said that the land had value as a community resource and refused to give planning permission to the owners. Since then, it has taken the case to appeal and the planning inspector has, rightly, also said that the land should remain a sports ground.

I understand that the latest reports are that the debts of Dudley Town Football Club Ltd. stand at £600,000. I fail to see how they could so quickly have escalated to that level. It seems abundantly clear to me that Philip Edwards and Trevor Lester have not invested any money in the club for a considerable time. I seriously question whether they have the club's interests at heart. It is said that the limited company is constituted so that the two men cannot benefit financially from it. What is obvious to me, however, is that it would require only a clever accountant to convert the sponsorship money that they have put into the club into directors' loans. They would get out of it all the money that they have put into the club, and would probably make more money in the process. They should not be allowed to get away with it, and I do not believe that they have the right to sell the ground, which should be held in trust for the local community.

It is clear that the owners have no interest in maintaining the ground as a sports ground, so I challenge them: sell it to someone who will. I repeat my offer to get the money together so that the ground can be placed in trust and used for the benefit of the local community. I say directly to Philip Edwards and Trevor Lester, "If you love football, and if you have any commitment to the local community, sell the ground at a fair market value as a sports ground, not at some inflated price based on the assumption that planning permission will eventually be given if you turn it into a sufficiently disgusting eyesore that the council and the local community get sick to the back teeth of it."

The second issue is Dudley Wood stadium, which is another difficult case. Nothing has happened to it since November 1995, when the owner terminated the lease of Cradley Heath speedway club, which is an internationally renowned team. It was one of the leading clubs, nationally and internationally, and it operated from Dudley Wood stadium from 1947 until 1995. The team managed to ride the 1996 season at Stoke-on-Trent, but, since then, riders have had to be contracted out or loaned to other clubs. In effect, Cradley Heath is not in existence.

That is a terrible shame. Cradley Heath is the only world-class sporting team in Dudley borough. It won two league championships; eight knock-out cups, which is a record; six premierships, which is also a record; two four-team knock-out trophies; one inter-league knock-out cup; and one British trophy. It has produced three riders who have won the world championship—Bruce Penhall, who won it twice; Eric Gundersen, who won it three times; and Jan Pederson—and I have watched them all. In the year that Cradley Heath was kicked out of the ground, it finished third in the premier league, won the four-team knock-out final and —reached the semi-final of the knock-out cup.

The current owner has terminated the lease and concluded an agreement with a developer, subject to planning permission, to build houses on the site. The planning application was turned down by Dudley council and was also lost on appeal. The council has tried every way that it can to bring Cradley Heath speedway club back into existence. The owners turned the council down flat, rejecting a land-swap deal which I discussed with Ministers in the previous Administration.

The stadium has not been used for three years, and it is as if a sign has been put up saying, "Open for vandalism". Little has been done to protect the property, and there have been numerous arson attacks. There is little usable structure left, with the result that most of the ground is obsolete. Nothing is happening to the stadium, and the owners are again talking to developers, even though the appeal went against them.

Hon. Members should consider those two cases. Round Oak stadium has been completely demolished and destroyed. The clubhouse was sold off—piece by piece and, eventually, brick by brick—after the planning appeal inspector ruled that the site could not be used for residential development. There is nothing there, and it looks like a bomb site.

Both cases are mirrored up and down the country, and the practice of deliberate dilapidation, dereliction and devastation is a growing problem. If we are to protect our sports grounds, we must take action. I have several suggestions that the Minister might consider. First, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 gives local authorities the power to intervene where houses are to be demolished, but not to protect recreational facilities. The Government should consider such controls, to give local authorities the power to intervene where sports grounds are to be demolished.

Secondly, it is at least worth considering whether the Government should require owners of sports grounds to keep them fit for the purpose for which they were intended. There could be problems with that, but the Government might consider a duty of care.

Thirdly, we should consider giving leaseholders or, failing that, another bona fide sporting organisation, rights to continued use or the right to buy out a lease if the landlord wants to use the property for purposes other than the sporting purposes for which it was intended.

Fourthly, we should consider legislation on compulsory purchase powers and allowing not only local authorities, but public bodies or trusts, to buy sports grounds at an open-market valuation if the owner fails to keep it fit for public use.

The use by owners and developers of scorched-earth tactics—the deliberate and systematic vandalising of their own properties—is an abuse of the planning system. It should not be tolerated. I hope that the Minister will assure us of the Government's determination to stamp that practice out and their total commitment to protecting sports grounds for community use.

12.46 pm
Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) for allowing me to make a brief contribution.

My hon. Friends will be aware of my concern over some time about this issue, especially in respect of the home of my football club, Brighton and Hove Albion. I do not want to go over the ground that I discussed in the House last Friday, but I should mention one issue to the Minister: the possibility of the Government's developing and supporting planning policies that allow sports grounds to be developed for local communities.

Far too often, sports clubs involved in football, cricket, speedway and rugby union that are trying to gain planning consent are held up by local planning committees or by Departments. The Government should tackle the issue in a way that would make it easier for sports clubs to develop in their communities. That would avoid some of the problems mentioned by my hon. Friend. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise that issue.

12.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) on initiating the debate. I fully understand why he has raised the important issue of the threat to urban sports and recreation grounds.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the disposal of private land is, in the first instance, a commercial matter. The Government have no powers to influence such disposals directly, but they are subject, where appropriate, to planning controls. Any application for the development of land is subject to the normal planning procedures. In respect of playing fields and sports grounds, the relevant guidance to which local authorities must have regard is in planning policy guidance note 17.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the planning applications in respect of Round Oak sports ground and Dudley Wood stadium, the home of the former Cradley Heath speedway team, were both considered by the local planning authority. Planning permission was refused, largely because they would be contrary to the guidance in PPG 17. As he said, both applications were subject to appeal, and public inquiries were held. In both cases, the inspectors upheld the decision of the local authority and refused the appeals. I understand that new applications are likely to be submitted, so my hon. Friend will appreciate that it would not be proper for me to comment further on the merits of those individual cases; to do so might fetter the impartiality of the Secretary of State, should the case be referred to him later.

Although I cannot say more on the individual cases—despite the powerful case that my hon. Friend has made in respect of both sites—I am pleased to be able to use the debate to explain our planning guidance for the use of sports and recreation grounds. I hope that I will be able to reassure him that we are dealing with the issue with the seriousness that it deserves.

Under the previous Government, local authorities were placed under severe pressure to find alternative resources to support their normal functions. That led many local authorities to sell sports grounds, playing fields and open spaces. Many private owners and operators of sports and recreation grounds also faced pressures—mainly commercial—to sell their grounds in favour of more profitable uses.

This Government believe that it is wrong to sell and to develop sports and recreation grounds that communities need, and we propose that the practice should be subject to greater scrutiny. We acknowledge that there are growing pressures with regard to the potential use of sports and recreation grounds. Those pressures could increase, for example, in the light of our need to accommodate a growing number of households.

On 23 February, the Government issued their policy in "Planning for the Communities of the Future", which shows how authorities should manage planning for household growth. The policy aims to ensure that, as far as possible, new housing development is located within existing urban areas. That will help to promote more sustainable patterns of development and to reduce the pressure for development in the countryside.

However—this is important—we also want to ensure the availability of good-quality playing fields and open spaces, so that urban areas are attractive places in which people want to live. Urban quality should not be sacrificed; indeed, in many places, we must enhance it. That means that sports and recreation grounds, including playing fields and open spaces, need greater protection.

We believe that sports and recreation grounds are important components of civilised life and are vital for maintaining the quality of communities. It is important that such facilities are close to where people live, so that they can participate in sports or spectate; my hon. Friend drew attention to the role of the two sites as a location for people both to play and to watch football and speedway. We attach high importance to retaining sports and recreation grounds in urban areas. In the past 20 years, too many of our sporting facilities, in particular playing fields, have been lost and grass-roots sports have suffered as a result.

It is part of the function of the planning system to ensure that adequate land is allocated both for organised sport and for informal recreation. As I have said, the policies are set out in PPG17 on sport and recreation. That emphasises the special significance of all sports and recreation grounds, including those that are privately owned, and the fact that they should normally be protected. It advises local planning authorities to distinguish in their development plans between sports and recreation grounds—including playing fields, parks and other open spaces—that need protection from development, and sites that are temporarily in recreation use, and unused open land, that may be suitable for development.

Local planning authorities should prepare development plan policies and proposals that cover specific needs for both mainstream and specialist sports grounds, including local motor or air sports, and football stadiums. Sports and recreation grounds should not be developed for other uses unless it has been established that the sites will not be required in the longer term for community use, or unless alternative replacement provision is to be provided as part of the proposed development.

The emphasis is on identifying whether there are local deficiencies in provision and, where there are deficiencies, protecting such grounds by local planning authorities adopting clear strategies for sports and recreation. Local planning authorities should have clear plan policies that show the sites that will be protected. That is the most effective way to ensure their survival.

On 16 January, the Government announced how we will fulfil our manifesto pledge to stop the sale and development of playing fields that schools and communities need. The Deputy Prime Minister announced that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions would tighten planning controls in respect of development of all local authority-owned playing fields, which include sports grounds, where the English Sports Council advises against proposed developments. We will require a local planning authority to notify the Secretary of State of any proposal for development of a local authority-owned playing field, where the English Sports Council has objected because it considers that it would have a detrimental effect on the provision of playing fields.

We consulted all local planning authorities about the proposed arrangement and there was overwhelming support for the proposal. We will shortly issue a direction under the General Permitted Development Procedure Order to bring the arrangements into operation.

In 1996, my Department commissioned research into the effectiveness of PPG 17 in protecting and promoting sporting interests. That research confirms the growing concerns about the redevelopment of sports grounds and suggests revising the guidance. We will shortly publish the report on the research, and we will announce how we propose to respond to its recommendations. Clearly, we wish to ensure that planning guidance is up to date and relevant.

Local planning authorities are required to determine planning applications in accordance with their development plans. For planning applications involving the development of sports and recreation grounds, local authorities should take into account the longer-term needs of the wider community and consider whether there is, or is likely to be, a deficiency.

If the application is likely to result in a local deficiency in the supply of sports and recreation grounds, there should be a presumption in favour of rejecting it. If there is doubt about whether there is a deficiency or whether the application is likely to result in a deficiency—in other words, where a local planning authority and the English Sport Council disagree—the application should be referred to the Secretary of State, who will decide whether to leave the application for the local authority to determine, or determine it himself.

Once developed, sports and recreation grounds are gone for ever. Therefore, stringent scrutiny of proposals to build on them is vital. That is what we are providing and, in so doing, we are delivering our manifesto pledge.

My hon. Friend raised four specific questions. The first was control of demolition, on which there has been an interesting case in recent months involving the Thames Ditton lawn tennis club, where similar issues to those that my hon. Friend has highlighted were raised. We have been considering carefully the implications of the judgment in that case and whether further action is required by the Government.

My hon. Friend's second point was about the maintenance of properties. It is essentially for the owners to ensure that properties are maintained, but, where there is a serious threat to public health as a result of deterioration, local authority environmental health departments do have powers to take action.

On the third point that my hon. Friend raised, leaseholders' rights are an issue with which I am familiar, having already dealt with a debate on the subject this morning. Different rules apply in respect of residential, as against commercial, leaseholds. The Government's commitments to leasehold reform are explicitly in respect of residential leases. My hon. Friend has, however, raised the precarious position of sporting clubs with a leasehold interest and highlighted their vulnerability. That certainly deserves further consideration.

Finally, on my hon. Friend's concern about compulsory purchase powers, he will be aware that the Government have been considering both the current working of compulsory purchase procedures and the blight on properties that may arise from the use of such powers or from other factors. I cannot give him any commitments this morning, but I assure him that the whole issue of the use of compulsory purchase powers is under careful consideration by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning.

Mr. Pearson

Will my hon. Friend specifically say something about what I call scorched-earth tactics—a deliberate tactic by owners and developers systematically to dilapidate their properties in the hope and expectation that, eventually, they will get planning permission?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend raised that matter in his speech, and I hoped that I had conveyed the fact that the existing planning powers available to local authorities, if properly applied, provide a safeguard, in that there should be no presumption by a developer that he or she will secure planning consent simply by allowing a site to fall into disrepair.

If a site is necessary for the provision of local recreation space and open space for the community, that is a legitimate community need which the local authority can and should properly take into account in considering any application submitted by a developer for a change of use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) asked about the interests of sports clubs. Of course, he will understand that the Government have to give equal treatment to all applicants for development, whether they be sports clubs or not, but I assure him that the Government are very conscious of the needs of sports clubs and the need for sports provision, and we are keen to ensure that we develop the appropriate facilities.