HL Deb 20 June 1996 vol 573 cc450-2

3.11 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many playing fields have been sold since the issue of the Education (School Premises) Regulations (S.I. 1981/909) by the Department of Education and Science; how many sales are currently under consideration and whether they have any plans to change the policy.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, it is the Government's policy that playing fields that schools need should be retained. We have no plans to change this policy. My department does not collect information about asset disposals at LEA-maintained schools. Grant-maintained schools may dispose of surplus land with the consent of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Since the advent of grant-maintained schools, consent has been given in 14 cases and nine applications are under consideration.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is not this the Government who constantly say how important sport and recreation are to the nation as a whole? I hope the Minister will correct my figures if they are wrong, but I understand that since that circular was issued some 5,000 playing fields have been sold, and perhaps half as many again are being considered for that purpose. Does not the fact that the Government have now instituted a register of recreational land demonstrate that they are now concerned about what is happening? Does this not call for a fundamental change of policy to stop the haemorrhage of this most valuable asset?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot confirm the noble Lord's figures. However, I think it is important that both LEAs and grant-maintained schools should have the freedom to dispose of assets if they are surplus to requirements. Obviously we think it is important that they should retain sufficient land to meet their sporting requirements and that is why we have regulations laid down that deal with that very subject. I think it would be wrong to have an absolute blanket ban on all sales, particularly as sales can often lead to better provision in some other field, or even better provision in the sporting field.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister not realise that the kind of damning statistics the noble Lord has put forward justify a warning given over 10 years' ago about what would happen to sporting facilities? Does he not think it obscene that at a time when hundreds of millions of pounds of television fees are being spent at the professional end of sport there seems to be no government strategy to encourage sport at the grass roots level? That policy allows grass roots sport to wither.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am afraid I have to reject what the noble Lord had to say. I do not believe there has been no encouragement from the Government in terms of encouraging sport at the grass roots. One only has to look at the White Paper published last year by the Department of National Heritage entitled Raising the Game and at the support we give to sport in schools in the national curriculum. That is why we lay down minimum standards governing the amount of space schools should keep. But, as I said, I think it is right that LEAs and schools should have the freedom to dispose of surplus assets. We have adequate controls to make sure they do not get rid of more than is necessary. We shall continue that policy.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, have any of the fields which have been sold also been covered by lease-back arrangements so that the fields have continued to be used in the way they should?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not aware of any cases of that sort but I shall be more than happy to make inquiries if my noble friend wishes.

Baroness David

My Lords, the Minister said when these fields were sold that the money obtained from those sales might be spent on other, more useful things. Do the Government follow up what the money is spent on? Can the Minister tell us what useful things have been bought as a result of the sale of these playing fields?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot give any figures to the noble Baroness. However, the point I was trying to make—I think it is a very important one—is that there should be that freedom, and it can be a freedom that can allow much better provision to be created in due course.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he is absolutely right to say that this money can be better used? I know of a school which sold its local playing field and was able to build an entire new block of schoolrooms and a new sporting facility at a slightly greater distance with a pavilion out of the proceeds. That must be common sense.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those comments. It points to the fact that it would be wrong, foolish and unwise to have the sort of blanket ban that noble Lords opposite collectively seem to be requiring.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is the Minister able to tell us what has happened to some of the recreational grounds in the former coalfield communities? Is he aware that the DTI and British Coal have given a public commitment that these sites will be retained in perpetuity? Does the Minister know what has happened? Has any progress been made in discussion?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are slightly wide of the Question but the noble Baroness was kind enough to write to me giving me warning of this question. I took advice from colleagues in another department. We have made clear that our objective is that British Coal's land currently in active recreational use should be retained for that purpose. That remains the case. Discussions continue with the coal industry social welfare organisation which has expressed interest in acquiring all the sites. All I can say further is that an announcement is expected shortly.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does my noble friend share my pleasure that the Benches opposite appear to be supporting playing fields and therefore perhaps competition? Would he dare to share my hope that their support for such competition might eventually extend to the classroom?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. I agree with them in total.

Lord Peston

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows I never discuss politics in your Lordships' House, and therefore I shall not follow his noble friend's line. The noble Lord said—if I understood him correctly—that he agreed with what his noble friend Lord Elton said. However, what his noble friend Lord Elton said was anecdotal. The central question which we must put to the Minister is the one that he himself presents to us. His department collects no figures and therefore the Government do not have the faintest idea what the consequences of their policy are, and have no way of discovering whether the state of affairs is satisfactory. Is not that the nature of the problem—if one does not obtain any data, one cannot express a view?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not believe there is a problem. As I made clear, in the case of grant-maintained schools we shall review every application. In the case of all other schools, there are minimum space regulations which the schools are bound to follow. They cannot dispose of land unless it is surplus to those requirements.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, the freedom to which the Minister has referred is the same as the freedom to dine at the Ritz. What he is forgetting is that local authorities have been squeezed so much by the financial directives of this Government that many of them have had no choice but to sell playing fields.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I totally reject that. We have increased the amount of money available to schools by £878 million this year, and over the past three years we have made an extra £2 billion available for capital projects.