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Superstores shopping for playing fields

Major supermarket chains are eyeing playing fields as sites for new stores - and promising local councils new or refurbished schools in return.

The siting of superstores is one of the most environmentally sensitive issues. But financial incentives to cash-strapped education authorities are proving attractive, despite local opposition.

David Whitbread, head of education at the Local Government Association, said: "This is going to be a trend. There is pressure to attract private finance to a public-funded service.

"Sometimes these deals happen because it is a good way for the stores to get at a suitable site while schools are under pressure to find ways of financing their needs."

Two controversial deals have already upset local communities.

In the North Yorkshire town of Settle, the supermarket chain Booths has offered to pay for a new primary school. The condition is that it be allowed to build a store on the same playing field site The existing school and the education authority back the proposal. The Church of England primary, which was built in 1857, is now too small and its playing field is half a mile away which makes it difficult for children to use.

Objectors include those living near the proposed site, who would rather see a field than a supermarket while Settle shopkeepers fear the competition. A planning inquiry will decide the issue.

In Liverpool, the Asda supermarket chain is offering a tempting solution to the problems of Childwall community comprehensive.

Two Childwall pupils, backed by their parents who are governors, have taken the local authority to court over the state of the buildings.

Asda has said it will move the school on to one site and refurbish the building as well as provide Pounds 7 million to invest in schools in the community. The redundant site would be used for a supermarket.

Neville Bann, chairman of Liverpool's education committee, said: "This is potentially a very exciting proposal which could bring major benefits for the whole city as well as Childwall comprehensive and many other Liverpool schools."

An Asda spokesman said it was an example of a more positive working relationship with authorities.

However, the LGA, among others, worries about the compromising of the planning process.

Mr Whitbread said: "If it makes educational sense then let it go to the planning process to weigh up all the issues and if the proposal is wrong, then they must reject it."

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