THE Government is attempting to strengthen rules on selling school playing fields. But sports and recreation bodies have accused Labour of breaking its pre-election promise to end sales.
A new circular, The Protection of School Playing Fields, sets out what local authorities must check before considering any sales.
Schools minister Charles Clarke said the new rules "will make local authorities and governing bodies think twice before even proposing a playing field disposal".
The rules are that:
* proceeds from the sale are ploughed back into sport or education;
* remaining playing fields and sports facilities meet the needs of local schools, particularly primaries, and the local community;
* the views of local people must be taken into account, with consultations lasting at least 10 term-time weeks.
Applicants should seek advice from a national body with recognised expertise, such as the National Playing Fields Association, the Central Council of Physical Recreation or Learning through Landscapes, says the circular.
The playing fields association and the central council are disappointed by what they see as the Government's failure to keep its manifesto commitment. In Labour's Sporting Nation, the party said: "We will tackle the decline in school sport by ending the sale of playing fields..."
Nigel Hook, the central council's head of technical services, said:
"There's a bit of a broken promise here; they said they'd stop the sale of playing fields, now they're saving only some of them."
Elsa Davies, director of the playing fields association, challenged the Government to name one school field it had saved from being built on since last October, when applications had to be placed before Education Secretary David Blunkett.
She called the latest criteria "very peculiar". The first, requiring that proceeds from sales be ploughed back into education, implied that all was well.
It was only one step towards safeguarding playing fields, she said, adding:
"This is really not good enough."
However, Mr Clarke, who launched the circular at the start of National School Grounds Week, claimed his department had "already put a virtual halt to the sell-off of playing fields".
He said that before 1997 sports bodies reported that there were 40 "disposals" a month.
"Now we are receiving just a dozen applications a month - and they are often leading to new sports facilities or result from school closures," he said at the launch of the week organised by Learning through Landscapes in an east London school.
So far the three bodies whom the Government has suggested should be consulted have not worked out the financial implications of their new role.
* UNEQUAL BATTLE OVER GREEN SPACES
THE fight for Foster's Field, a former grammar-school sports ground in the centre of Sherborne, Dorset, symbolises the constant struggle by local people to preserve their open spaces.
And it will serve as a first test for the Department for Education's tough new measures to stop the sale of school playing fields.
Dorset County Council tried to sell the site for housing development six years ago, but has been refused planning permission three times. Last January, against all expectations, the sale was approved by the Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions.
The Sports Council raised no objections to the planning proposals - which would swallow up the last sizeable piece of open land in a market town of 9,000 inhabitants.
Douglas Hosking, a founder member of a group of local people fighting to save the field, said: "The people of Sherborne are feeling a profound sense of righteous indignation. We have provided ample proof of the need for a local recreation and sports centre."
As the field was once part of a school, education minister Charles Clarke has the power to determine its future.
PARMITER's school on the outskirts of Watford in Hertfordshire has, in contrast to most, been buying rather than selling land.
The trustees of the 1,200-strong former grant-maintained comprehensive bought 43 acres of farmland including 18 acres for use as playing fields.
Twenty-five acres are still being farmed, but might be used later.
The school, which is celebrating its 21st anniversary on the site after it moved from London in 1977, boasts seven football, one rugby and three hockey pitches.
A grass cricket square was opened three weeks ago and a pound;1 million indoor sports centre and floodlights was funded by National Lottery money.
Brian Coulshed, the head, said of the now non-denominational voluntary-aided school:"We have a great sporting tradition."
Watford Football Club has based its academy of excellence there, so has the Hertford netball team.
The school has also formed a partnership with two local cricket clubs, which use the indoor nets.