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Major urged to give fields sporting chance

The Prime Minister has been urged to halt the conversion of playing fields in Plymouth into a housing estate by the Ministry of Defence.

David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, presented a petition of some 5,000 signatures to Downing Street last week asking him to intervene, given his well-known commitment to sport.

Ironically, the news of the loss of these fields, used by about 3,000 youngsters, coincided with an announcement by Iain Sproat, Sports Minister, of a consultation paper on proposals that the Sports Council should become a statutory consultee on plans affecting all playing fields.

Mr Sproat told Parliament: "The Government is seriously concerned at the loss of playing fields. We attach high priority to ensuring that people have access to a range of high-quality sports facilities."

The paper, issued jointly with the Department of the Environment, is based on proposals in Sport - Raising the Game, launched by John Major last July. This set out the Government's plans to put sport back into the heart of school life, promote closer links between schools and clubs and establish a Pounds 1 million sports academy.

Mr Jamieson said the MoD's decision to convert the land into a housing estate was "infamous". The pitches were used by junior and minor football leagues every weekend. The nearest alternative fields were five miles away and public transport was poor.

"What will happen to these lads? What will they be doing otherwise? It's so short-sighted. We are fighting the MoD and the Treasury who are just out for a short-term gain."

The MoD was prompted to sell the land because of the closure of the Royal Naval Engineering College in Plymouth which used the site. An MoD spokeswoman said that the Treasury required all Government departments to get the best value for any land surplus to requirements, and in any case had offered the council an alternative site two miles away.

The consultation paper was welcomed by the Sports Council which has long been concerned about the piecemeal approach to planning. It already encourages local councils who bid for National Lottery money to look at their overall plans for playing fields before any cash is allocated.

Last autumn, for example, North Tyneside was awarded about Pounds 5 million for a regeneration project in Smith's Park, a deprived area, only after it reviewed plans to sell some playing fields elsewhere. Phil Dicks, the Sports Council's regional officer, said the result of the review which he carried out with the council, would be a net increase in pitches over the next 10 years. "We try to use the lottery as a bit of a lever to get better planning. There is a danger that it becomes just a chase for cash."

A Sports Council spokesman said the proposal to make consultation statutory would also help to make the National Playing Fields register - hailed as a latter-day Domesday Book when launched by the Government in 1993 - more accurate and comprehensive. Local authorities had not given returns for updating information a high priority, he said.

Mr Jamieson is still waiting for the Prime Minister's answer.

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