Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, has been accused of "leaning" on the Scottish Sports Council to prevent the redevelopment of Meggetland playing-fields in Edinburgh. The six-year saga is likely to present Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, with the first test of the Government's policy on saving school pitches.
Elizabeth Maginnis, Edinburgh's education convener, said Mr Rifkind, the former Edinburgh Pentlands MP, had used "nods and winks" while in office to stop the council selling a section of the playing-fields for housing. Residents in the Meggetland area oppose the plans.
Mrs Maginnis said it was significant that the sports council had twice relaxed its opposition to trading land for improved sports facilities in the city since Labour took power at the Scottish Office. The sports council had allowed the sale of the Hawkhill playing-fields and was now more disposed to the Meggetland development. Conservative councillors demanded proof of the allegations against Mr Rifkind.
In return for the land, the developer has pledged to upgrade the rest of the playing-fields in a deal worth several million pounds. All-weather playing surfaces, floodlit pitches, a running track, changing rooms and a new clubhouse for Boroughmuir Rugby Club are part of the package.
Meggetland is used by a number of comprehensive schools, including Boroughmuir, Tynecastle, St Thomas of Aquin's and James Gillespie's, as well as primaries.
Mrs Maginnis also accused the sports council of favouring applications by independent schools for lottery funds and said it had been impossible to attract lottery funds as the city had no matching revenue. "The only resource we have is land," Mrs Maginnis said.
Eric Milligan, the Lord Provost and honorary president of Boroughmuir Rubgy Club, said: "Nothing has been done to improve facilities at Meggetland for 40 years."
A spokesman for the sports council dismissed accusations of bias and said it had "gone out of its way" to find a solution at Meggetland. The spokesman pointed out that Currie High, which is run by the city, was one of 12 schools where sports projects had been funded by lottery cash. Three independent schools had benefited.
Marilyne MacLaren, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on the city's education committee, proposed that a straight bid to the lottery to raise money for Meggetland could be successful given the change of government. She opposed the loss of pitches and open space.
The matter will now go before the planning committee and the full council. If the scheme is to proceed it will have to satisfy the Education Minister, who told a school sports conference in May that he was "concerned about the loss of playing-fields" and called for action to ensure plans that involved a change of use were brought to ministers' attention. Brian Wilson said: "If one facility is lost, then another must be created in its place. We must not have a net loss of playing-fields."
Edinburgh accepts the number of pitches will be cut but argues that the best policy is "quality not quantity" and says other local pitches will benefit from the deal.