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Sales of playing fields go on apace

The Government is coming under increasing pressure from sports organisations to uphold its pledge to save the country's playing fields from destruction.

Campaigners calling for action claim that as many as five playing fields every week are being put at risk by hard-pressed schools and local authorities seeking to raise cash.

John Major and his sports minister Iain Sproat have repeatedly urged planners to conserve sports fields. When the Prime Minister launched his sports policy document, "Sport - Raising the Game", in 1994, he said: "We will ensure that by the end of the decade every school will have access to green-field sports facilities."

Around 5,000 playing fields had already been lost, largely as a result of the 1981 Department for Education's Regulation 909, which gives local authorities the right to sell school land that is surplus to requirements.

This week, the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the National Playing Fields Association stepped up their demand for a repeal of this regulation, which has just been reissued.

The CCPR's register of threatened playing fields, established in 1985, now stands at 2,000, and the NPFA says it knows, on average, of five new threats a week. The Register of Recreational Land, produced by the Sports Council and Coopers and Lybrand in 1993 at a cost of Pounds 700,000, was found to be incomplete by the Ordnance Survey. It has yet to be updated.

The two organisations are also unhappy with the remit of the Sports Council, which was appointed as statutory consultee last summer in the wake of the Prime Minister's 1994 sports initative. All local authority planning departments have to consult the council every time a playing field is the subject of a planning application.

But the CCPR and the NPFA claim that the Sports Council has abandoned the Playing Pitch Strategy which was devised and agreed by all three bodies in 1991. The strategy aimed to make any loss of land subject to more stringent safeguards, promoted participation in sport, recognised that pitches could be used for informal recreation, conservation, education and that they contributed to the quality of life.

The CCPR wants the Sports Council to oppose the sale of grounds where a local authority has no such strategy or at least make the LEA adhere to the NPFA's benchmark of a minimum of six acres' recreational land per 1,000 population.

Nigel Hook, head of technical services at the CCPR, argued that Regulation 909 ran contrary to current trends in physical education and projected population increases. The national curriculum PE demanded more time for team games, but at least a third of school playing fields were of such poor quality that schools were unable to meet the DFEE's requirement of seven hours' sustainable use a week.

The two organisations are calling for talks with the Sports Council and the sports minister.

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