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Sports Facilities (London)

Volume 164: debated on Friday 12 January 1990

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

2.30 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the attention of the Minister for Sport serious worries about the future of sport and recreation throughout the country, but particularly in London.

As we start a new year and a new decade, it seems appropriate to have this Adjournment debate. It has been recognised for some time that, in spite of being a city of apparent wealth, London has real problems that are spread through much of the inner city. Government statistics show that 13 of the 20 most deprived local areas in the country are in London.

London has special needs that can be tackled only by special measures. What is true of London in general is more particularly true of London's sport. It has had buoyant days. We are all proud of the sports men and women who have achieved so much on the international sporting scene. We are all proud of the medals that they have won, but today anyone who participates in sporting and recreational pursuits at whatever level of excellence, who is committed to safeguarding such opportunities for future generations of community use, has genuine cause to feel that all this is threatened.

Ever-increasing commercial exploitation of land, insensitive planning and lack of awareness are contributing to the growing threat to our outdoor recreational space. Too many playgrounds and playing fields are deteriorating or disappearing altogether.

Recently, the Central Council of Physical Recreation brought to public attention some 800 public sites nationally that it targeted as at risk. It estimated that the recent total loss of recreational land exceeds 100,000 acres. The Minister may say, as he has said on many other occasions, that those figures are open to question, that some local studies have suggested that, in a number of areas, there have been gains in provision and that they outweigh the losses, but is that not precisely one of the fundamental weaknesses of the present system?

We do not know the quantity of the national stock of educational playing fields in the public or private sector. We do not know the regional variations in provision per head of population of urban recreational space. We do not know the percentage of urban land that has been lost to development. We do not know the number of planning applications for development of recreational or open space that have been approved by planning authorities or at appeal.

A recent survey by the National Playing Fields Association showed that, at local authority level, the position is rather similar. Only half of our local authorities knew the number of sports pitches that were being used for dual use. Less than a quarter of our local authorities knew the total recreational landholdings within their boundaries. Nevertheless, time and again, we hear the words, "Surplus to requirements." That is the catchphrase used to cover every sale or potential sale.

How can anything be surplus to requirements when we do not know either the total amount of recreational open space or its quality? Whose surplus? Whose requirement? Who decides the surplus and who decides the requirement? How can we plan for the future if we do not have the facts about today? That is why I am calling on the Minister for Sport to ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to start immediately the process that enables every piece of recreational playing space to be registered. There should be a statutory responsibility on all planning authorities to maintain a register of recreational playing space within their jurisdiction.

Time after time in the House, when the Minister is questioned on this subject, his response to practically every question has been to say that the information is not held centrally. It should be. Just before Christmas the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who is present today and whom I am allowing to contribute to the debate, received a response saying that the Minister had asked the National Playing Fields Association, the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Sports Council to combine to consider the matter and to determine whether it is desirable to compile a register of playing fields. The Minister already knows that those organisations want a register to be compiled. Admittedly it was a different Minister who answered the question put by the hon. Member for Ealing, North and that is one of the problems in this place; different Ministers answer questions about different things all the time.

The NFPA document, "The State of Play", which was published recently, specifically called for a register. The CCPR has also called for a register. There is no need for the working group to advise the Minister; the organisations have already told him that they want a register. The working party is looking not at playing fields in general, but at sports pitches. It will count pitches rather than the overall number of playing fields and recreational spaces. I hope that the Minister can tell me why, as Minister for Sport, he cannot start that process and draw up a register.

School sport is already in crisis. The shortage of qualified physical education teachers means that many of our children are not enjoying even a basic minimum of physical activity. Physical education will prepare each child for satisfactory participation in sport through the development of the necessary skills. The extra duties imposed on teachers preparing for the national curriculum, the savings that have had to be made in transport costs and the way in which the national curriculum seems to be downgrading PE are worrying factors.

Physical education must be seen to be as at least as important as any other subject presently categorised as a core subject in the national curriculum. In reality, however, we shall not achieve that end unless at least 10 per cent. of time is allocated for PE for all five to 16-year-olds. We must get that base input right as it is at that base that we ensure that young people also learn the social skills inherent in participation in sport. Social awareness is developed through PE and team competition teaches the importance of co-operation and the meaning of interdependence.

As well as the problems that I have outlined, we face falling school rolls in London. That has made it much easier for education authorities of all political complexions to declare certain playing fields as—that same old phrase —"surplus to requirements".

At the moment education authorities are not required to take account of the increase in the number of children forecast by the end of the century, when there will be more than 1 million more children. Because the Department of Education and Science's regulation 909 states "minimum" requirements, many authorities are interpreting the regulation as a maximum over which all else is considered surplus.

The other major concern is the local management of schools. That management will rightly mean that the governing bodies are encouraged to serve the community by allowing access to school facilities. I have spoken out many times about the way in which many facilities, in public and private use, lie empty at the weekends. With the exception of some areas, we have been unable to bring together education and leisure facilities so that dual use becomes a right. However, under local management, schools would have to seek a financial return on the use of those facilities. The Minister for Sport must intervene to ensure that that does not prevent and restrict use. Similarly, where the Sports Council has already put money into school facilities for community use, there must be safeguards to ensure that those facilities continue to be available to the community.

Within London, the abolition of the Inner London education authority and the arrangements for dealing with its playing fields are adding to the insecurity. The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, in a letter to the Greater London Playing Fields Association said:
"Under the Education Reform Act the Secretary of State may transfer ILEA property to an Inner London council only where, in his opinion, it needs to be transferred for the purpose of enabling the council properly to perform its ILEA functions. These functions include providing for school and college sport, but do not of course include the provision for general recreational facilities. Any property that the Secretary of State does not transfer to an inner London borough or existing LEA must, under the provisions of the Act, be transferred to the London Residuary Body for disposal."
Up to today, the Department of Education and Science had still not published the final property transfer order. Therefore, nothing definite is known and insecurity continues. The draft order attaches covenants to those ILEA playing fields for which successive boroughs have identified an educational use, requiring the maintaining authority to consult other boroughs before taking the property out of use. In those circumstances, if another borough wishes to maintain the property for educational use, it is to be transferred to that borough.

The convenant suggestion is a nonsense; it is not nearly foolproof enough. The sites will be just as much at risk because the possibility of raising funds for the boroughs will not be the issue. It may well be the severe decrease in income due to the community charge and the uniform business rate that will ensure that the boroughs do not have the necessary resources to spend on keeping sites in active use. That is misleading.

The covenant will not provide any safeguard unless it states that the land must be kept for recreational use. Put another way, there may be severe pressures on some of the inner London boroughs—and the outer London boroughs —to dispose of the land not because they hope to make financial gain, but because they cannot afford to keep it. Everything that we have read so far seems to show that the effect of the poll tax and the uniform business rate will be to take money out of the inner London boroughs.

Why cannot we do other than transfer for educational use? Although there is no power to allow for special transfers of land, it is not too late for the Minister to ask for that power, and that is what he should be doing. More crucially, he should be calling on the Secretary of State for the Environment to place an immediate stop notice on the sale of all sports fields and recreational land in London until such time as the register is complete and we can consider the overall position.

With such powers, it might be possible to vest the land either in the National Playing Fields Association or in one of its affiliated associations. The management would be either through the association or it would be farmed out to the local authority or voluntary organisations. The security would be having the land vested in a charitable organisation for use as a recreational space for ever more.

Instead, what we have ended up with is a response from the Department of Education and Science, which is too blinkered to look further than narrow educational requirements, with a national curriculum so crowded with mandatory subjects that physical education will not get a look in; and the Department of the Environment's view that, in planning matters, the presumption is still in favour of the developer.

We all know that there is still a crisis, the scale of which is unquantifiable. The Central Council of Physical Recreation, the National Playing Fields Association and the London region of the Sports Council have all said that. We feel passionately about the importance of sport and recreation to society, of the capacity of sport to teach us self-discipline and of the opportunity that it gives many youngsters to achieve, to participate and to succeed in competition as an individual or in a team. Those at the grass roots who do so much of the voluntary coaching should not have to spend increasing amounts of time worrying about whether they can continue to use a facility or campaigning to stop a development. That is the challenge that sport provides at all ages and levels.

There are incidents of rugby clubs in Mitcham being moved twice in one year and still being insecure about where they will be going next. I know that the Minister has occasionally intervened. I am pleased that he did so in the case of the Port of London Authority playing fields in Redbridge—a high-quality facility—and I thank the Evening Standard for its campaign urging the local authority to consult other organisations interested in recreation and sport. However, urging is not enough. We have seen that. More needs to be done and more statutory support must be given. Where is the planning policy guidance note which was promised but which so far has not been delivered?

At the root of the debate is the fact that sport in this country is still undervalued. Either the Government should accept its case for adequate funding on the grounds of its contribution to education, health, social welfare and the economy or the Government should provide a tax and legal environment that encourages voluntary effort and facilitates fund raising for sport.

The paltry increase in the grant to the Sports Council of less than inflation compares with the much larger increase given to the Arts Council. In real terms that constitutes a direct cut in school sports funding. As a recent example, why did not the Minister for Sport protest to the Department of Education and Science that the Inner London federation of school sports was refused a paltry amount of money? Why is there no Question Time on sport in the House? We have questions on the arts, so why not on sport?

We need the Minister for Sport to stand up for sport. He should not be an apologist for the rest of his Department and the Secretary of State. We need a Minister who will take the lead in trying to prevent the loss of our playing fields and sports facilities. I hope that he will respond to the positive suggestions that have been made, to ensure that the future heritage of young people and the sporting life of this country remain secure.

2.47 pm

Does the hon. Gentleman have the consent of both the hon. Lady and the Minister?


I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) and the Minister for allowing me to participate in this crucial debate. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it and on her excellent speech. She said, rightly, that the Central Council of Physical Recreation, the National Playing Fields Association and the Sports Council have called for a strengthening of the position concerning playing fields in London. That means opposing present moves by statutory organisations, including local councils, to take away playing fields from communities and schools. Playing fields also make an environmental contribution to areas in which there are often excess amounts of buildings.

The demise of PE and games in London schools in recent years has been tragic and must be reversed. It is partly due to misguided educational policies and also because the facilities have been progressively lost, and that must be reversed. However, I strongly support the present links which have grown, and are growing daily, between schools, clubs and the youth service. I hope that there can be dual use not only of club facilities by school pupils, youths and others, but of manpower—expert teachers and coaches—available to teach the sports and games. Such dual use could be most valuable.

I shall refer to a specific case in my constituency with which I know the hon. Lady associates herself. I do not want the Warren Farm sports complex to be placed under the control of the London borough of Ealing because that borough will not give an assurance that if it takes on the sports complex—which I have known for 30 years to be a valuable and excellent facility—it will abandon plans to build on the 17 acres of the Cayton road playing fields in my constituency which belong to Ealing Green high school. Without that assurance I and the community know that if it possibly can Ealing council will go ahead with a building project in conjunction with the Notting Hill Housing Trust to build on 10 or 11 acres of those 17 acres of playing fields. The sleight of hand is that the remaining six or seven acres will be released for community use.

I and the community that I represent want to maintain those 17 acres of playing fields at Cayton road for school and community use. We need all 17 acres to serve a heavily built-up area. No sleight of hand by Ealing council or any other body must be allowed to take away those facilities from the school or the community. That would be wicked and tragic.

Generally speaking, as the hon. Lady said, is it not time that the Department of the Environment and my hon. Friend in particular gave some planning policy guidance on sport and recreation? We really need guidance stating that from now on not another inch of playing field shall be released for building or any use other than sport. We need all we have and more.

2.50 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) on securing the debate and on presenting her case so eloquently. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). In the short time available I shall attempt to respond to a number of points and possiby add a different dimension to the perspective of London sport that the hon. Lady has presented to the House this afternoon. She has painted rather a gloomy picture which takes scant regard of the excellent initiatives that have been and are being developed by many London boroughs and by the numerous voluntary organisations based in the area.

The hon. Lady also underestimated the importance of the role of the London Regional Council for Sport and Recreation. The council is the strategic planning body for sport and recreation in the region and has great influence among those involved in this area. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the council for its achievements and in particular I congratulate it on its work in bringing together the private sector and more customary partners in the public sector to develop facilities in the capital.

Local authorities have traditionally been the main providers of sport and recreational facilities, and that is certainly true in London. CIPFA estimates show that over the past decade the net expenditure on sport anti recreation by the London boroughs has been in excess oi£1 billion. Part of that sum has been used to maintain existing facilities, but a considerable amount has been used to provide new ones. The decade has seen the construction of nine new swimming pools, taking the total to 118. Six more are currently under construction. There are 144 sports halls compared with a little over 50 10 years ago, and there are 40 synthetic pitches compared with 11 in 1981.

The residents of London also benefit from many of the sports facilities owned by the local education authorities which, over the past five or six years have been opened up for dual use by schools and local communities. I echo the importance that my hon. Friend attached to the need to develop the concept of dual use. A particularly good example of which my hon. Friend will know is in the London borough of Enfield where there are seven dual-use school sports halls. The regional council is doing much to encourage similar schemes in other boroughs, for example, Newham. The Government will continue to work for more facilities in schools to be made available to the wider community and will soon be issuing a dual-use guidance booklet on the subject.

Then there are the specialist facilities, a number of which have been developed since 1980. Examples are the indoor athletics training facilities at Wood Green and Crystal Palace, the football facility at Douglas Eyre playing field in Walthamstow and the ice rinks at Lea Valley and Romford.

Some of the most exciting sport and recreation facilities developed in conjunction with the private sector are in the Docklands. The Docklands arena became fully operational during 1989. Costing £30 million it is London's first major, post-war, purpose-built arena capable of seating 13,000 people. It will provide recreation opportunities for the local community as well as people coming from further afield. The private sector made a significant contribution to the development of the new water sports centre on the Isle of Dogs which became operational last spring. The centre offers a variety of water sports including sailing, canoeing, windsurfing and angling for use by the local community and by elite competitors.

In addition to those more ambitious projects many smaller projects are every bit as worth while. As the hon. Lady is aware, the Sports Council allocates annual grant aid to the regions. In the last financial year the London region received some £2·5 million from the council. This was used as pump-priming money and more than 150 projects received financial support. Eight capital grants, totalling £550,000, were given towards the construction of new facilities with a total value of £3 million. Some 62 grants, worth £300,000 in all, were given to voluntary organisations towards projects worth just under £3 million. Those included projects as varied as improvements to the Heathrow gymnastic club; the installation of floodlighting at the multi-games area at the Marvels Lane boys' club in Lewisham, the purchase of equipment for a group of people with disabilities at the Otter canoe club in Wandsworth and the conversion of churches in Richmond, Harrow and Balham for community use.

All 150 projects which received aid from the Sports Council during the period in question were aimed at making a wider range of facilities available to a wider range of people. That could mean constructing new facilities, but could just as well mean refurbishing existing ones to ensure that the best possible use is made of them.

In its strategy document "A Capital Project", published in 1987, the London Regional Council for Sport and Recreation estimated that 40 per cent. of Londoners participated in outdoor sports and 22 per cent. in indoor sports. Those are among the highest participation rates in the country, but clearly they could be even higher. The London council has done a great deal of good work in this area, particularly with the special programmes that it has developed to encourage participation among target groups such as women, young people, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities. There are now some 20 sports-specific development officers working in the region and a similar number of local authority development officers. Much good similar work is being carried out by the Central Council for Physical Recreation.

I deal now with the additional points made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North who made particular reference to the Warren Farm playing fields in Ealing. I understand that ILEA submitted a formal application yesterday seeking the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to dispose of the playing fields at less than best price. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North would commend that to the House. That is the present position, and I give my hon. Friend the undertaking that Ministers will carefully consider that request and will have noted the important points that my hon. Friend has brought to the attention of the House. My hon. Friend will accept that as I hold a quasi-judicial planning position in my Department, I have difficulty in going further today. However, I have noted carefully all that he said and undertake to see that it receives careful consideration.

The danger about Ealing council taking over Warren Farm is that as it has built on Cayton road playing fields, it will build on Warren Farm playing fields. It cannot be trusted.

My hon. Friend's point has been noted by the House. He will accept that in the House I must take a neutral position on the issue, but it is important that it has been placed on the record.

The hon. Lady asked about a register of recreational land. I was not the one who said that the group to which she referred should consider setting up a register. The contrary is the case, because a long time ago I urged the setting up of a register and when I was a Back-Bencher I actively supported that principle. I did that because it is quite clear that, despite the hard work carried out by many interested groups to draw up a register, inevitably it requires more than the input of just one body.

It is far better that the Sports Council, the CCPR and the NPFA should get together and work together in moving swiftly to establish a comprehensive register. That would be in the interests of establishing the important guidelines that hon. Members mentioned. For that reason, as long ago as 14 April 1989 I initiated an arrangement to ensure that the Sports Council and the regional councils monitored and developed an assessment of the national situation. I share with my hon. Friend the belief that there should be a move in that direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.