BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.02.02

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN discovers that, though the sale of school playing fields may have slowed, the pressure on community playing fields has increased and that no new playing fields have been created from the %A3125 million allocated for the purpose three years ago.

DAVID GROSSMAN: You join us with England 4-1 up against Germany. Well all right this is actually a playing field in Brighton but for the children who use it, this turf is where they rehearse dreams. The field's owners though see it a bit less romantically - they want to sell a three acre chunk off for housing. The government came to power pledging to end the sell off of school playing fields. In came what it claimed were strict new rules, but critics say that some schools are still selling off green space and that another battle against the developers is now being fought to save college and community sites, that don't have the same level of protection as schools. Labour's 1997 sport manifesto promised decisive action: "We will" it said "tackle the decline in school sport by ending the sale of playing fields." KATE HOEY MP: The manifesto commitment, probably like a lot of manifesto commitments was not really thought through and therefore if we are being honest we have not complied with what the manifesto said. We have made attempts to make things better but I don't think it's been really treated as an important and serious enough issue. GROSSMAN: This is Ashmole School in North London, the government's given approval for the sale of around six acres of grounds for housing, the money's needed to completely rebuild the school which is crumbling and ramshackle. Campaigners against the scheme showed me how much land they'll lose to the developers. No-one disputes that the school needs complete rebuilding, what they question is that the selling off of playing fields is the only way to pay for it. TANIA MYRISTIS: I feel the government has let us down terribly because I feel that they should fight for our playing fields, which they obviously are not doing in this case. We are going to lose six and a half acres of playing field and to me that is disgraceful. They should be putting money towards building the school, helping us achieve what we can for our children and not letting buildings ..building companies come and build houses on our land. GROSSMAN: Once it had left the sidelines of opposition, Labour brought in new rules on school land sales. From 1998, the Education Secretary became the referee and had to approve all disposals. So far, Estelle Morris and her predecessor have been asked to make ninety-nine decisions and refused permission just twice. Evidence perhaps of a commitment missed. RICHARD CABORN MP: That's not true. First of all we brought the sale of playing fields down from forty a month, when we came in to power in '97, down to a little less than three. And the money that actually is gained from those sales, with the new stricter regime that the Education Department's put in to operation, is making sure that all that money goes back in to recreation and sports facilities, in the schools. GROSSMAN: But we've been to schools where they're hoping to build on, they've got permission to build, new buildings, nothing to do with sport. CABORN: Well, I say where there has been part of a playing field sold off then the money that's gained from that will be ploughed back in to the education and sports system in the education in the schools. GROSSMAN: So the claim is forty sales a month under the Tory blues and just three under the Labour reds. But how are these numbers worked out, with and an insight into the government's rather relaxed attitude to statistical precision here is, of all people, the Schools Standards Minister. BARONESS ASHTON: We have attempted to work out a guesstimate of what we believe. We believe that probably somewhere around thirty to forty playing fields a month were being sold off. This is now, my Lords, comparative to something in the order of three, but these are guesstimates and I would not wish to be held responsible because we simply do not have the information. ELSA DAVIES: I've been hearing a figure of forty playing fields a month that used to be coming forward for disposal. That figure is quite unsubstantiated. It's really very suspect and very frequently it's used to imply that these were forty school playing fields. I think it's not appropriate for government to be using figures that are really not available. GROSSMAN: School playing fields though aren't the only ones the developers have their eye on. Well located college and community sites are just as highly prized, but, whilst any proposal to develop school land now has to be approved by the Education Secretary, other developments do not. Critics say that's a loophole big enough to build a housing estate through. Varndean Colleage, near Brighton, has a strong sporting tradition, Steve Ovett was once a student here. Varndean's Principal, Alan Jenkins, needs to find money for repairs and expansion at what is a very successful institution. He says with nowhere near enough money in his budget, selling three acres of playing field has become his only option. But would still leave plenty left for sport. ALAN JENKINS: We regret this as a solution, but it is the only solution that is currently available to us. What we had here was a balance between educational gain and some environmental loss. So yes, we've always reckoned that to be the case, but clearly we feel strongly that in the current funding context, there is no option in order to meet the educational need, other than to progress in this way. GROSSMAN: Protesters against the Varndean sale with a bit of help from their children are working to change minds. Today, they're busy making posters -there's no point sending them to the Education secretary Estelle Morris though, because Varndean's a Sixth Form College and not a school, she doesn't have to give her approval for the sale. Such a distinction is pure nonsense say campaigners. PETER FIELD: You've got to have a comprehensive programme for all sports facilities in this country if we are to encourage our children to take up sport and actually have the ability or have the facilities to be able to do it and that runs right through further education as well. What I would say to government is, you know, please don't sell off these playing fields, give more protection, because once these playing fields are sold off, they're gone for ever. We can't replace them. HOEY: The anomaly of further education colleges being left out of any consultative process, by anyone other than the Planning Authority is an anomaly. This could be corrected quite easily and I think is very necessary. GROSSMAN: The developers are coming. The Royal London Insurance Company's sports centre in Colchester is boarded up, its pitches closed and awaiting sale. The company may not need them anymore but the whole community has lost a valuable facility. The Royal London Colts have kept their name but little else, they now have to borrow a pitch from the nearby rugby club. Colchester's MP says it shouldn't matter who owns a pitch, if there's community need it should be protected. BOB RUSSELL MP: The real issue to me is all the other playing fields, not school playing fields but all the other playing fields owned by organisations, by companies, by private firms, the Health Authority and other public agencies, because those playing fields are being sold off at a far greater rate than school playing fields. GROSSMAN: In sport, practice shows. The government says it's still looking to improve protection for all playing fields no matter who owns them. CABORN: We'll never stop the total sale of playing fields, it would be wrong to do that, if there are surpluses there. But we are moving to look at the, in a wider context than just school playing fields, it's the whole of sports facilities, which we're doing through the planning regime, and that's a revision of the planning guidance, and also asking every local authority now to do a needs assessment on sports facilities, including playing fields, and looking at what is actually there, and making sure that we've got the match right and bit by bit I think we're going to put in a much more comprehensive approach to the whole question of sports facilities. GROSSMAN: Changing the rules could be timely since there is evidence that development pressure on all types of playing field has shot up in recent years. In the year to April 2001 planning applications for development on playing field sites was forty-five per cent up on the previous year. What's more the number approvals increased by sixty per cent with four-hundred-and-forty-six projects given the go ahead. But the government say many of these developments only enhanced facilities. CABORN: I'll give you an example where there were three rugby pitches and they wanted to put on new accommodation for stripping and indeed a gymnasium. What they did they reconfigurated the three rugby pitches and then built the new pavilion, new sports complex. They didn't actually lose any of the area that was actually used for active sport but what they were able to do was enhance the quality of the facility by building on that particular, that was showed as a closure of a play area. GROSSMAN: Of course playing fields need some buildings like changing rooms, but some say the government's wrong to assume that all sport related building on pitches is to be welcomed. DAVIES: When it comes to putting large tennis centres, which take an enormous amount of land take, onto a playing field, then we would wish to have far greater and stronger scrutiny of any application that comes forward for that sort of development. It's just not good enough to say we're building indoor facilities on playing fields, unless adequate playing fields are being allocated in other parts of the neighbourhood, GROSSMAN: Not only is the government accused of going back on its promise to preserve existing playing fields, it's also alleged it's completely failed in plans to open new playing fields. In March 1999 the then Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, unveiled the green spaces initiative - a three-year programme to spend one-hundred-and-twenty-five million pounds of lottery money turning derelict land like this into playing space. But, three years on and not one single new playing field has been opened with the money. JOHN GREENAWAY MP: I think it typifies what's wrong with the government's approach. We get a high profile press launch, lots of media, appearing to spend government money on a worthy cause, except it's not government money, it's lottery money, it's been filched from other good causes, and then three years down the track we find that the initiative's hit the buffers, there are no new playing fields, partly I think because people didn't think through, it never dawned on them, that if there was land available for new playing fields, you wouldn't have to be selling off the playing fields which already exist, and that's the real issue, that these fields are still being sold off at an alarming rate. GROSSMAN: Still up in the air the Royal London Colts would quite like one of these new pitches now that theirs has gone. So when might they be ready? The government says the timetable isn't anything to do with them as it's run by arms-length agencies. One organisation that holds over thirty-one million pounds of the fund to build new playing fields is Sport England, they say they only got hold of the cash last June. DAVID PAYNE: I think it's fair to say this has, this programme has taken longer than everybody would have hoped to have actually come to fruition. It was only last year that we actually received the authority to actually take this programme forward. We think we're moving quickly but I would agree it's, it has taken too long, but we very much hope that there will be live projects for everyone to see this year. GROSSMAN: Back at the world cup final in Brighton the referee's looking at his watch. Land for housing is extremely valuable and selling playing fields a temptation for many owners - the problem is that as space to run around in, this land is priceless.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.