LABOUR has failed to prevent the continued sell-off of school playing fields despite tightening the rules surrounding sales.
Government figures show that 159 applications to dispose of playing fields were approved by the Department for Education and Employment between October 1998 and June this year. Only five applications have been refused during this period.
Not a penny of the lottery money earmarked two years ago for the creation and improvement of playing fields has been spent.
In March 1999 Chris Smith, the former Culture, Media and Sport Secretary announced that the Government would be investing pound;125 million of lottery money in a new green spaces initiative - pound;22 million of this was for school and community playing fields.
"There is no evidence that the Government have protected one extra playing field," said Elsa Davis of the National Playing Fields Association. "What we want to see is action."
The NPFA sits on two cross-departmental committees set up under Labour to monitor the number of school and community playing fields, and to draw up rules to protect them. According to Elsa Davies they have made "relatively little progress". She says the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel had spent its first year "talking about its terms of reference".
A spokesperson for the DFES said that tougher rules were working: "In the latter years of the Conservative government about 40 school playing fields a month were being sold off. Since October 1, 1998 we have approved an average of just three sports pitch applications a month - all of which were surplus to the needs of schools in the area."
Sports groups dismissed this explanation. A spokesperson for the Central Council for Physical Recreation, whose members include sports governing bodies and teaching unions, said:"There is little evidence to back up this claim. It contains more spin than substance. No one knows if the situation has got better or worse."
The CCPR believes that some councils are allowing sports fields to degenerate in order to give applications for permission to sell them off a better chance of success.
The DFES promised to further tighten the rules governing the use of playing fields, but guidance was delayed by the general election.