Sports fields are being lost to urban development because school sell-offs have not stopped, Diane Spencer reports
THE Government is failing in its promise to stop the sale of school playing fields to developers after two years in power, say leading sports and recreation organisations.
Twelve months on from the Education Framework Act - requiring schools to get permission from the Department for Education and Employment to sell land - only three out of 86 applications have been refused.
Don Earley, deputy director of the National Playing Fields Association, described the situation as "bleak".
But ministers insist that sales have slowed considerably. Jacqui Smith, the new schools standards minister, told a Sport England (formerly the Sports Council) conference last week that playing fields were being sold at a rate of seven a month compared with 40 under the previous government. And the proceeds from the sales went towards improving sports provision, she said.
But the Central Council of Physical Recreation claims it knows of 218 applications lodged in the past year to develop fields.
The council is also concerned about the apparent about-turn on plans for New Opportunity Fund lottery money.
It now looks unlikely that the pound;125 million in lottery money for green spaces will be used for new fields, despite an apparent promise. An opportunity fund consultation paper, published last month, said "purchasing of land will not be a priority under the programme".
Nigel Hook, the council's head of technical services, accused the Government of reneging. The council is seeking urgent clarification from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
Both the association and the council argue that, even when the sale of land involves creating an alternative, it normally means that open spaces are replaced with sports halls.
Another worry for them is the lack of information on the number and distribution of playing fields. A register of recreational land compiled for the then Sports Council in 1993 was hailed as a modern Domesday Book, but was rapidly found to be seriously flawed. There are plans to update it with the help of the Local Government Association.
Sport England, which was made a statutory consultee on the sale of sports fields by the
previous government, believes the picture is more positive than the low DFEE refusal rate for sales suggests. A spokeswoman said that many developments had made great improvements on existing sites. WHAT THE POLITICIANS PLEDGED... "By the end of the decade, every school will have access to green-field sports facilities"
- former Prime Minister John Major in 1995
"Our manifesto commitment is quite clear: we will bring the (previous) Government's policy of forcing schools to sell off playing fields to an end"
- former Sports Minister Tony Banks, December 1997
"The preservation of playing fields will ensure pupils can take part in sport"
- David Blunkett, on the launch of a law apparently protecting playing fields, March 1998
"(New rules) will make local authorities and governing bodies think twice before even proposing a playing field disposal" - former schools minister Charles Clarke, June 1999