HL Deb 03 June 1997 vol 580 cc568-70

2.55 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

To what extent they consider it will be possible to restore the number of school playing fields which have been sold in recent years.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, it would not be practical to restore those playing fields which have been sold in recent years. But we intend to ensure that playing fields which schools and their local communities need are not sold in future. My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Secretary of State for National Heritage are discussing this as a matter of urgency.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that those of us who are interested in the problem very much appreciate the new thinking on the sale of playing fields? However, if necessary, would the Government consider introducing legislation on the matter, although I appreciate that there would be difficulties associated with it? Is my noble friend further aware that the previous Government's disastrous record of selling literally hundreds of playing fields was opposed by the Sports Council, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, the National Playing Fields Association and many other organisations? Therefore, I hope that the Minister will realise that when the Government do take action they will receive overwhelming support.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his remarks. Yes, of course, I am aware of the concern on the part of many of those organisations which are concerned with sporting activities for young people about the previous government's record in selling off school playing fields. I believe my noble friend is aware that to ban all sales of school playing fields would require new legislation. With my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage, we are looking at ways of ensuring that all school pupils have access to proper sports facilities. Perhaps I may add that proper sports facilities are more than just grass playing fields. We are also looking at ways to improve sports facilities generally for all types of school; for example, indoor facilities and all-weather pitches are particularly important for schools on restricted sites in built-up areas.

Lord Henley

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is quite obviously a matter which would be best left to the schools and the LEAs? Further, will the noble Baroness give the House an assurance that no school or LEA will be prevented from selling off surplus—and I stress the word "surplus"—playing fields where that money could then be used for proper educational advantage for the school or the LEA?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I believe the noble Lord opposite is fully aware that LEAs are free to dispose of school playing fields which they own in the same way as they are able to dispose of any other assets, provided that their schools continue to meet the requirements of the school premises regulations and that the needs of those schools and those of the local communities that they serve are properly met. That is what we aim to ensure.

Lord Howell

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister has just indicated, most of the school playing fields were sold off in defiance of the school premises regulations, as amended in 1996. Therefore, will she give an undertaking that there will be a thorough review of those regulations, bearing in mind the fact that school use and community use should be written into them? Will my noble friend also bear in mind the fact that there is no provision to provide playing fields for any children aged eight, which is now an anachronism? Further—and most important in the minds of some of us—despite what my noble friend said about indoor facilities, most of the national games are played on God's good grass, which is under-prepared, not properly maintained and in many cases is a scandal and danger to the players. Will my noble friend the Minister kindly take all those matters on board in her review of the situation?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords; we are examining all the options. However, perhaps I may pick up one of the questions raised by my noble friend. My department is particularly keen to encourage schools to work closely with their local community. Many schools already actively welcome local people making use of their facilities, and we want to build on that. Before considering any land as surplus, schools really should look carefully at the needs of the communities that they serve.

Lord Addington

My Lords, in view of the remarks of the noble Baroness, does she not agree that it might be appropriate to consider under what circumstances a playing field that is reasonably well maintained can be considered to have no benefit to either a school or a community? A well-maintained turf can always be used for some form of sporting activity, but unfortunately if a house is built on it it can never be used again.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course it is important to look at possible uses of all school playing fields. There may, however, be some occasions where it makes sense for a school to sell off a piece of land which is not terribly suitable for use as a playing field and then reinvest any proceeds it may make from that sale in the provision of alternative school sports facilities. That is one of the things we shall be encouraging.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that drug abuse and alcohol abuse among young people are a serious problem and healthy alternatives such as sport are of vital importance? Will she also consider that aspect and ensure that schools which now have no facilities are provided with good facilities in the future?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course we all need to address the serious problem of drug abuse. Some young people who have been seriously addicted to drugs may not find it easy to take part in active sports. We shall examine ways in which we can encourage young people who are at risk in this respect to participate in other more healthy activities than taking drugs.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, many of us are delighted with the answers that my noble friend has given this afternoon because they are much better than those we were given before. When my noble friend is considering this matter will she take into account not just the community but also the Sports Council and also local planning authorities as they can all play an important part in the preservation of playing areas?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. The Sports Council now maintains a register of recreational land. That will provide us with a useful database covering all sports fields and not just those attached to schools.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, will the Minister take into account in her deliberations the document entitled The State of Play which was published by the National Playing Fields Association for whom I speak, which referred to the school premises regulations? Will she also consider a new category of protected recreational open land for playing fields and children's playing spaces?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in the review that we shall undertake with the Department of National Heritage we shall of course take note of what has just been said. We shall consider all the reports to ensure that we can benefit from their recommendations.