HL Deb 14 April 1994 vol 553 cc1616-8

3.19 p.m.

Lord Howell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware that the national register of playing fields shows that some 600 sites in England are listed as being under threat; and what action they propose to take to protect these sites and to prevent other similar sites being sold for development.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as at October last year, the register showed that, of the 24,000 sites in England, there were some 404 outside of London which were under threat from development with planning permission either already granted or being sought. The Government are committed to preventing the unnecessary loss of playing fields. Local authorities have been asked to take full account of the community's need for recreational space and to consider the long-term need for playing fields before allowing them to be developed for other purposes.

Lord Howell

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that helpful reply. Does she agree that the threat to our playing fields will undermine the Government's new initiatives both in regard to play space and school sports? Will she also agree that, in addition to the 404 on the new national register that she mentioned, 220 or more are known to the Central Council of Physical Recreation to be registered but are not yet recorded in the register for central London? The National Playing Fields Association has told me that new cases are being brought to that organisation at the rate of 250 a year, which reveals a very serious situation indeed.

In view of the statements made last week by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Sport, can the noble Baroness say what the Government intend to do to stop this rot? Does she agree that, once planning permission has been given, the enhanced value makes it impossible for the local authorities to buy back the land? Is the Minister aware that in many cases these playing fields have already been built on and cannot be redeemed? Therefore, can we have a full-scale inquiry into the serious situation thus revealed?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as regards the first part of the noble Lord's question, until the register was established nobody knew how many playing fields there were in England. Therefore we do not know whether there has been a net gain or loss in the number of playing fields in recent years. The Government are firmly committed to sport in schools. They will be taking the opportunity of the revision of the national curriculum further to entrench the position of games in the school curriculum. In addition, the Prime Minister has asked for proposals to be drawn up by the Department for Education and the NHD jointly for developing team games and competitive sports in schools. The Prime Minister has not yet seen any of these proposals.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the generally accepted figure for a healthy acreage of playing fields is six acres per 1,000 children under the age of eight? If the Department for Education's figures are correct that in 10 years time there will be almost 17 per cent. more children in school, will the Minister bear those facts in mind in taking more affirmative action to prevent the selling of playing fields to commercial interests?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as I have already said, the Government are committed to the preservation of playing fields and have also issued guidance. It will be up to the Sports Council, which will be deciding what to do with lottery funds in future. But there is no reason that such funds should not be used to purchase or improve playing fields.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, given the widespread concern over the appalling haemorrhage in the number of playing fields and the debate which is currently taking place energetically within the Government over the future role of sport, does the Minister agree that this is exactly the time when we should stop all disposal of sports fields? Why do not the Government announce a moratorium now?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as I have said before, in the Government's planning policy guidance note 17, we have already taken action to encourage local authorities to take full account of the community's need for recreational space etc. Consideration is currently being given to the Minister for Sports' proposal for a complete ban on the sale of school playing fields.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the sale of surplus school playing fields has proved to be a very valuable source of capital which has actually facilitated, enhanced and developed educational facilities—and on occasions recreational facilities—which have improved generally the status of our educational service rather than working to its disadvantage?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I cannot help feeling that once a playing field is developed it is lost for ever. That is why we expect local authorities to take account of the long-term community need before disposing of playing fields, and why we have provided £500,000 to establish the register of recreational land. It is also important to make better use of existing facilities, which is why we are encouraging more schools to open up their playing fields to the community.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government are as committed to the development of outdoor recreational facilities which are not confined to playing fields and which are not organised competitive games, as they are to the organisation of competitive games?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Government's commitment to sport has been demonstrated by the funds which have been made available since 1990 through the reduction in the pools betting duty for the Football Trust and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, the launch of the Sports Match Scheme in November 1992 and the £75 million plus a year which should be available from the national lottery.

Lord Howell

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it would be grotesque in the extreme, especially to supporters of the lottery such as myself, to suggest that lottery funds should now be used to get local authorities to buy back, at enhanced values, those playing fields which they sold off at the behest of the Government? That would be most extraordinary. Will she kindly tell the Prime Minister to think again about making such a ludicrous suggestion?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is a matter for the Sports Council as the distributing body for the lottery. It hardly seems to be a cost-effective proposal to involve the demolition of new developments and the restoration of land to its previous recreational use.

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