HL Deb 23 November 1993 vol 550 cc134-6

3 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many state schools have sold off all, or part, of their sports fields.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, this information is not collected by the department. Responsibility for deciding whether to retain or to dispose of school playing fields rests with local education authorities and the governing bodies of self-governing schools.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. It is very disappointing. Do the Government agree that physical, competitive education is vital to the upbringing and welfare of the young people of this country?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the Government's commitment to the importance of physical education is shown by its inclusion as one of the 10 foundation subjects in the national curriculum.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in a debate in this House a few months ago my noble friend Lord Donoughue drew attention to the fact that the Government had set aside £76 million for Manchester should it be successful in its bid to hold the Olympic Games? My noble friend asked a pertinent question which was not answered; namely, whether the Government would make that sum of money available to the lower echelons of sport if the Manchester bid was not successful. Unfortunately, Manchester was not successful. Is it not now reasonable to make available that £76 million to those at the bottom end of the sporting pyramid in order to prevent local schools from selling off some of their sports grounds? Is the Minister aware that there are innumerable cases of schools selling off desirable sports fields in order to keep their heads above water?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the noble Lord's question about Manchester is a little wide of the Question on the Order Paper. The question of whether schools should dispose of parts of their playing fields is for the authorities which are in charge of those schools. In most cases they are the LEAs. The department is aware of only about 130 cases in which schools have applied for planning permission for part of the land to be used for activities other than sporting activities.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply is most unsatisfactory? He has run away from the Question by saying that the Government do not keep statistics. Why is that? I do not object to sports fields being sold provided that they are being used for sport and not development. Can the Minister give me an answer to that question, and if not, why not?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, in August 1990 at the invitation of the then Minister for Sport, the Sports Council submitted a proposal to the Government for the establishment of a central register of recreational land. That was agreed and some £500,000 was included in the Sports Council's grant-in-aid settlement for 1991–92 specifically for that purpose. The National Playing Fields Association and the Central Council for Physical Recreation are co-sponsors with the Sports Council. The register was officially launched on 19th October this year and shows that England has some 73,000 pitches and 24,000 sites. The majority of those are owned by LEAs. I cannot include figures for greater London because they require some further information, but the register shows that some 404 sites have requested planning permission for other forms of development. Of those only 130 come from LEAs.

Lord Howell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in view of his original Answer it is extraordinary that a year or two ago the Government circulated local authorities and colleges advising them to sell off playing fields? Ought not that advice to be withdrawn? Is not the fact that many fields are not available to the youth of this country, who as a result of the Government's policy have been priced out of using other sporting facilities, resulting in many of the difficulties which we see among the youth population? Does the Minister further agree that school sport is the foundation on which all sport in this country is built and therefore its demise is having a serious effect on our football, cricket and other teams?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that sport is an essential part of the education process of all young people. However, I repeat my previous statement that LEAs are responsible for the provision and maintenance of the necessary facilities in complying with the sporting requirements of the national curriculum.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that as a result of the Government's encouragement to sell off sports pitches there is now only one full-size soccer pitch in the entire borough of Islington and that belongs to Arsenal Football Club?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, schools and LEAs in urban areas have a specific problem. However, I am not aware that Islington is different from many local authorities in urban areas.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, is it not of concern that the Government do not collect such figures? Given the alarming statistics on juvenile crime, vandalism and truancy, is it not crucial that our schools should have adequate playing facilities? Is the Minister aware that the Central Council for Physical Recreation has stated that school playing facilities are being sold off at the value rate of £100,000 per day? Have the Government any policy to reverse that trend or is it still their policy to encourage it?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the Government's general policy is that unused or redundant assets should be disposed of so that the resources realised and freed can be re-invested or used for the redeeming of debt. There is inevitably a limit on the level of credit approvals or capital grant that we can make available. Extra spending funded through capital receipts enables LEAs to boost capital programmes without incurring debts.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I believe that we should stop now as 30 minutes have elapsed.