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Peacehaven (Recreational Facilities)

Volume 894: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.43 p.m.

I apologise for detaining you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Minister and the House at this late hour, but the problem which we are about to debate has been a subject of concern for the people living in Peacehaven for a quarter of a century.

In order properly to understand the problem, it is necessary first for the House to appreciate some of the background details to the town of Peacehaven. It was founded in 1919 as a "garden city by the sea" by a Mr. Charles Neville, an entrepreneurial promoter who sold off plots often through national newspaper competitions, and in so doing created a planner's nightmare. This may be at the root of the difficulties we are debating tonight.

That same Mr. Neville, however, was very much aware of the area's spiritual and social needs, and during 1920 established churches, launched literary, dramatic, horticultural and other societies and formed sports clubs—most particularly giving the land for and founding the Peacehaven Football Club in 1922. This same club is using that same pitch today.

The town of Peacehaven continued to grow right up to 1939, when all remaining vacant land was taken over by the War Agricultural Executive Committee and most of it put under cultivation. In 1952 a large area of this land was compulsorily purchased by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and let off to a local farmer. But it must be noted that during the whole of this period from 1919 onwards the area of land given for recreational purposes by Mr. Neville has remained intact, being used by the football club and Her Majesty's Forces during the war for various sports while the surrounding land was ploughed up.

In about 1955 the Peacehaven Parish Council applied for planning permission to use 10 acres of land, including the three-acre playing field, as a recreation ground. Planning permission was granted in 1957 following a public local enquiry. Since that time there have been various attempts by the council to purchase this recreational area.

During 1960 the parish council had talks with the football club regarding fencing this land, and it was at this point in time that the Ministry claimed and, it seems, established, its ownership. This ownership has always been disputed by some inhabitants, who still maintain that the land belongs to the parish.

Be that as it may, however, in 1964 the Ministry offered to negotiate with the parish council for a formal tenancy. The council at first resisted the proposal on the ground that the Ministry could not give vacant possession as the sports ground was occupied by the sports association, which might have established a possessory title. After further correspondence, however, this line was not pursued and further negotiations resulted in heads of terms for a lease being agreed in May 1967. It transpired that this offer was not accepted by the parish council as it was advised then to try to purchase the land.

At the same time, the council, approaching this problem from another angle, registered the three acres of land in Piddinghoe Avenue under the Commons Registration Act 1965 as a village green. However, the situation became somewhat confused when, following East Sussex County Council's approach to the Ministry on behalf of the parish council for purchase of the 10-acre site—an approach to which the Ministry signified general agreement subject only to agreement of heads of terms—the Ministry decided that disposal of the site either by sale or lease could not proceed until the question of the village green registration had been cleared up. The Ministry led the council to believe that if the commons registration application was withdrawn, it would be prepared to sell the land. It was after this statement that the parish council, with great reluctance and against the wishes of some inhabitants, withdrew the registration. In doing so the council was considerably criticised even though it was at the same time under considerable pressure from parishioners to acquire the land.

Unfortunately, following withdrawal of the commons registration application, the council was told in 1974 that the Ministry was not willing to sell the land. It was at this time that the parish council sought the advice of the Lewes and District Sports Advisory Council, which has now been taking up this matter on its behalf.

At this time also the County Council Education Committee also pressed an interest in securing the use of part of the site for playing fields for a new primary school which was planned to be built nearby. The Ministry accepted that the parish council would be agreeable to such shared use. It must be noted, however, that even with its agreement and even though the policy of the East Sussex County Council is that full use be made by the community of present school recreational playing fields, these options are not easily exercisable in Peacehaven because the combined effect of multiple use and of sea spume leads only too often to rapid deterioration of grass and decay of the sports fields and surrounding ground.

That is the situation as it now exists. When the Peacehaven Football Club was first founded in 1922 the population of the town was 1,924. This rose to approximately 4,000 by 1939, and during this period the development company of the town provided not only the sports field which I have mentioned, but two bowling greens, several tennis courts and a formal Italian garden for band shows, dances and the like.

In 1934 a local schoolmaster and a local sports association laid a cricket table adjacent to the football pitch, and this was used until it was ploughed up—without compensation—during the war. Now all but the football pitch have gone and nothing has taken the place of what is missing. The present population of Peacehaven is approximately 11,000 and the only recreational area there now is just over 4½ acres off Piddinghoe Avenue and a public open space of about 5 acres near the South Coast Road, this latter being maintained by the parish council although it is owned by the Lewes District Council. It is interesting to note that the Town Map 1965 for Seaford, Newhaven, Peacehaven and Telscombe, which has been approved by the Secretary of State, designated that 10½ acres of land should be made available for recreational purposes. I quote from the written analysis:
"Paragraph 307 Peacehaven-Telscombe Cliffs. At the time of survey there were only 3·42 acres of playing fields, a provision of 0·65 acres per 1,000 population. A demand for further facilities had existed for a number of years and the Peacehaven Parish Council have planning permission for an extension to the existing playing fields, but as yet have been unable to obtain possession."
Paragraph 308 goes on
"Assuming that the 10·4 acres covered by the consent (which includes the existing playing field of 3·42 acres) represents the demand at the time of survey, then provision for a further 40 acres should be made by 1981 as a result of an estimated increase of from 456 to 2,214 (or 386 per cent.) in the number of males in the 15–34 age groups. The total calculated increase is therefore 46·98 acres."
As the Minister will know, the national average for recreational space is four acres per 1,000 head of the population. On this basis, Peacehaven should have 44 acres now, but on the basis of the 1973 Town Map and Plan for Peacehaven and Telscombe Cliffs, which projects a population increase of 17,500 by 1981, 26 additional acres should be added between now and then. To look at it another way, since the township is now included as a growth area in the East Sussex County Council's 1975 structure plan, which projects a population of over 20,000 in 1981, Peacehaven and Telscombe Cliffs will require 80 acres of recreation space in the next six years, or eight times the area we are discussing this evening.

It is appropriate at this point to mention a parallel need for public open space in Telscombe Cliffs. There it has been agreed between the town council and the Lewes District Council that open space could be provided in the area known as Chatsworth Park, which forms part of Kirby Farm in that town. The town council seeks a lease or possibly a purchase of a five-acre plot of land south of Bridleway 16 for this amenity area and the Lewes District Council acting on its behalf sought and gained reassurance from the divisional surveyor of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that such a request would be favourably received. Talks with the Ministry are, I believe, proceeding at this time with this lease or purchase in mind.

It may be interesting for the Minister to know that the search for recreational areas is not just a quirk of the town councils in the area. Concern about the subject was found to be widely based in a survey carried out by two second-year students from the University of Sussex, under the guidance of the University Socio-Educational Research Fellow in August 1969. I should like to cite just four of the findings from this survey.

First, it is pertinent that 52 per cent. reported an interest in soccer, cricket or athletics, and more than a tenth of them actually practised one of those sports. This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that half of the sample interviewed were female, and therefore unlikely to practice either soccer or cricket, and half of the men interviewed were over 50, and unlikely to practise soccer or athletics. Second, the most needed sporting facility in Peacehaven was felt to be a combination of cricket pitch, playing fields and athletic ground. Thirdly, the most needed recreation facility was felt to be a recreation ground or park, scoring greater interest than either a community centre or a combination cinema-theatre. Fourthly, it may be surprising for the House to hear that sports and recreation facility needs were more often mentioned in the survey than a desire for road improvements, bus services and shelters, or even cliff-top or under-cliff walks, all of which have received considerable publicity and attention in recent years. These are measures of the community's concern about the subject of the debate.

In addition, the town council now has local sports clubs in contact with it requesting additional facilities and even offering to help finance and arrange voluntary labour to provide better facilities in the parish. At present the council is unable to supply the land, so that this latent community spirit and vigour cannot be tapped or fostered.

The origins and development of Peacehaven are unique, in that all the land is owned either in small building plots or in large parcels of land acquired compulsorily by the Ministry of Agriculture—including the recreational area we are discussing. There is in Peace-haven an enthusiastic body of citizens who, together with the parish council, are desperately trying to acquire the four acres which presently include the foot- ball pitch together with seven acres of adjoining land.

Negotiations with the Ministry of Agriculture have been going on for 20 years. It appears that, following Ministry agreement to sell, it has changed its mind more than once. The parish council considers that the Ministry has some obligation to sell as a quid pro quo for withdrawal of commons registration application.

In view of the vast acreage of land owned by the Ministry in Peacehaven, most of which cost virtually nothing to acquire, it is likely that considerable acreage falls in proposed development areas, and the Ministry can expect top land values to be returned to it eventually for this acreage. It therefore does not appear to be too much to ask for the 10½ acres of land in Piddinghoe Avenue to be sold to the parish council at present use price, so that it in turn can provide a better environment for all those living and holidaying in the community. It is appropriate to mention on this point that the East Sussex County Council has certified alternative uses to be either private open space or private sports or playing fields. This also should have an influence on the price.

Lack of successful conclusion to this problem makes nonsense of stated Government policy relating to recreation and playing field facilities and of the efforts of the Lewes and District Sports Advisory Council to improve these facilities in the area.

The situation also flies in the face of the guidelines established by the National Playing Fields Association for a minimum of three acres per 1,000 population, or the national average of four acres of recreational space per 1,000 population. The situation will be further exacerbated by the planned development of Peacehaven and Telscombe Cliffs under the Town Centre Map and Action Plan 1973 and under the East Sussex County Council County Structure Plan of 1975.

It is in the light of these factors and the established desire by this community for sufficient recreational facilities and security of tenure of them that I ask for help from the Minister this evening.

12 midnight.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Gavin Strang)

I am glad of the opportunity to deal with this matter, which is obviously important to the people of Peacehaven and I think the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) knows that I am anxious to be as helpful as I can. It will not be necessary for me to speak at any length on a number of the points he has raised.

The sports ground to which the hon. Member has referred is an area of 2·9 acres formerly owned by the Saltdean Estate Company and forming an island site within Lower Hoddern Farm. The farm, enclosing the sports ground area, was requisitioned by the Ministry during the Second World War for food production and was subsequently compulsorily acquired from a large number of owners of small plots in order to keep it in agricultural use. The farm is let on an annual agricultural tenancy.

The sports ground, owned by the Minister, is understood to be occupied by the Peacehaven Sports Association, which has been using the area since about 1925, when it was paying the Saltdean Estate Company, the then owners, an acknowledgement of 2s. per match. Since the land was requisitioned, no rent has been demanded from or paid by the association, which has, nevertheless, continued to occupy the land. The sports ground is now surrounded by a boundary fence erected by the parish council in 1967 with the Ministry's knowledge. Repeated attempts have been made to negotiate a formal letting to regularise the position of all parties, but so far these have failed.

The hon. Member has gone over the history of the negotiations at some length and it will not be necessary for me to repeat what has taken place over the years, in relation to the parish council's efforts to secure ownership.

It may be useful, however, for me to comment on the position as it has developed from 1974 when, in September, the divisional surveyor, as the hon. Member said, wrote to the parish council, since when no reply has been received from the parish council.

It is also worth mentioning that in the background note I sent to the hon. Gentleman in December 1974—a note which he found helpful—we said that it is not clear to the Ministry whether the parish council is still interested in purchasing. However that may be, the Ministry is able to open negotiations with the parish council for a lease of the sports ground with a view to meeting its immediate needs.

As I understand it, we have not yet had any response from the parish council to that letter in September.

We are more than sympathetic to the points the hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of his constituents. I note with interest his arguments that there will be an increased need for open space if a projected increase in the population of the area materialises. He is familiar with the position that in the approved town map, the existing sports ground forms part of a larger area of 11 acres now zoned as public open space and surrounded in the main by "white" land, where existing agricultural use is expected to remain undisturbed.

There is, however, a reasonable expectation that much of the surrounding land would be required for further residential development in the not too distant future and the public open space area would therefore have considerable "hope" value if sold at the present time. It is not clear to the Ministry whether the parish council is still interested in purchasing the land. However that may be, the Ministry has offered to open negotiations with the parish council for a lease of the sports ground with a view to meeting its immediate needs.

If the parish council were to come forward immediately and say that it would like to purchase this piece of land, that, in the nature of things, would take rather longer than the hon. Gentleman and I would like. The parish council may like to consider taking up the option of an immediate lease, which, hopefully, would not run very long before it secured ownership of the land.

The hon. Gentleman indicated that in his view the value of the land might not be as great as some people have suggested, particularly in the light of the position which he described regarding the statement that this land should be used for open space. However, I am sure that he appreciates that the Minister is bound to have some regard to the valuation provided by the district valuer and that, with the best will in the world, the price eventually to be paid for the land will have to reflect the district valuer's assessment of the value.

It may be helpful if I indicate that it would not be right for me to make public before any agreement has been reached the precise terms of the lease that we have offered. It should be sufficient to say that the terms are based on the agreement of May 1967. It would be in order for the parish council to make public—I do not think that it has done so, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—the terms on which the Ministry are prepared to lease the land, and that offer still stands.

As I have indicated, we are prepared to discuss the possibility of the purchase of the land. It is certainly not for want of any willingness to negotiate on the Ministry's part that this matter has effectively stood still since last September. We are ready to give effect to our offer as soon as we know that it has been taken up by the parish council.

The hon. Gentleman is really pushing against an open door. We are still prepared to sell the lands. Alternatively, we are prepared to reopen negotiations to lease the land. For the present, because of the proposal made public in the county structure plan for the development of Lower Hodden Farm, the Ministry sees the parish council's immediate need as being met, without prejudice to subsequent disposal, by a lease, as I have indicated. I can only emphasise that we are anxious to be as helpful as possible. The most important thing that the hon. Gentleman can now do is to use his influence with the parish council to see that it comes forward promptly in repsonse to the letter and states clearly whether it is interested in the lease or only in the purchase or whatever.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.