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Minister of sport in a fix over field sales

Tony Banks was shocked to discover the limits of his office. Diane Spencer reports

Tony Banks, the gaffe-prone Sports Minister, famous for being amazed at his elevation to the Government ranks, is even more surprised to discover how little power he really has.

Speaking at the Central Council of Physical Education's annual conference on the theme "Who governs sport?", he said: "It certainly isn't me."

Much as he would like to, he cannot stop the sale of playing fields. "Our manifesto commitment is quite clear: 'We will bring the (previous) Government's policy of forcing schools to sell off playing fields to an end'.

"But it isn't in my gift alone to do this. I've had discussions with my education colleagues - it's a nonsense not to, but I'm amazed at the number of people who said it's the first time this has happened."

Mr Banks said there was a case for a pragmatic approach. In St Albans, for example, a school had sold some land to improve its sports facilities overall. "So we will approve of disposal of grounds if there is a net sports or recreational gain. But we don't want fields disappearing under car parks, housing estates or supermarkets."

He said an announcement would be made shortly on the precise package of measures.

The minister said that he was well aware of teachers' worries of the encroachment on their territory by professional sport, alluding to the premier league's plans to set up academies to nurture players aged eight to 21.

Mr Banks said the Government's policy of sport for all was designed to reconcile the two extremes of benefiting ordinary people and developing excellence. "Only a fool would structure a sporting strategy without linking it to education. We will never get world champions unless we encourage sport at the earliest possible opportunity - starting at nursery school to adulthood, with no gaps. Sport isn't frippery, an add-on; it is central to the lives of virtually everyone in the country.

"We want to ensure that sporting opportunities are available and easily accessible to the entire community regardless of age, social background, location or ability."

He said he was "intensely frustrated" by the "arm's-length" position imposed on him by having to work through the five sports councils. "Why don't politicians trust themselves? We think we can't spend money on sports and the arts. Whatever I want to do, I can't do it. I'm a supplicant at my own table. I always have to convince Trevor Brooking (chair of the English Sports Council) that something is a good thing to do. We are going to find ways of doing things effectively and speedily."

Mr Banks was bemused by his conflicting responsibilities at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, where he is also in charge of listed buildings. "It reminds me of the old days of local government when there were oddly-named departments of tramways and fine arts. I now find that when I want to preserve something, the council wants to knock it down."

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