A playground for policy-makers

11th June 1999 at 01:00
DESPITE a manifesto pledge to end the sale of playing fields, the Government has so far failed to stop their disappearance.

Since last October, when the School Standards and Framework Act came into force, giving the Education Secretary control over disposal and use of school playing fields, 114 sites have come under threat and 38 have been sold.

By the end of the Conservative term of office campaigners including the National Playing Fields Association and the Central Council of Physical Recreation reckoned that a sports field was being sold every day.

Margaret Thatcher's 1981 Regulation 909 had given education authorities the right to sell school land that was surplus to their requirements.

An estimated 6,000 playing fields were lost in 15 years, mostly to housing, car parks or supermarkets.

When the sports-mad John Major became prime minister, he and his staunch lieutenant, sports minister Iain Sproat, tried to reverse the trend with a policy document published in the summer of 1995 called Sport: raising the game. At its launch in the Downing Street rose garden, Mr Major pledged:

"We will ensure that by the end of the decade every school will have access to green-field sports facilities." In July 1996 he gave the Sports Council the power to vet the sale of sports fields. In the first two months 80 were referred to it for a possible change of use. Between 1998-99 the council objected to only a third of the 807 applications.

Mr Sproat subsequently confessed to a Central Council for Physical Recreation conference that the previous regime's policy on selling land had "unforeseen consequences" in that too many acres of sports fields had been lost. This caused much mirth among delegates.

A change of government brought new hopes, but they too were swiftly dashed. The policy of restricting infant class sizes has given the central council and other sports bodies fresh cause for concern as new classrooms are bound to threaten play areas.

In April, schools minister Charles Clarke told David Oxley, the council's chairman, that he had to look to local authorities to make sensible decisions.

"We have never pretended that the current pattern of school playing field provision should be set in stone," he said.

This week's circular bears out his words.

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