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Godfrey Ermen Playing Field, Manchester

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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

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

10.20 pm

In the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) let me say that I know that the first thing that the House will want to do is to congratulate Manchester United football club on its magnificent victory in the cup final.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment an issue of great importance to my constituents. I am well aware that the Adjournment debate is a Back-Bench prerogative which ought rarely, if ever, to be invaded from the Front Bench. I hope that by the time I have finished speaking hon. Members will understand why I have felt it necessary to initiate this debate.

In 1989, a wealthy Manchester cotton manufacturer of Dutch origin, Godrey Ermen, left a fund of £200,000 in trust for any object deemed worthy of assistance. In 1928, Arthur Roby QC, Godfrey Ermen's great-nephew and a trustee of the fund, gave a grant of £5,000 to Manchester and Salford Playing Fields Society for the purchase of land in Abbey Hey, Gorton, and for the land be laid out as a playing field. The £5,000 being found insufficient, a further £670 was added. When the land was purchased, it was ordered by the board of Charity Commissioners for England and Wales that it
"shall forthwith vest in the official trustee of charity lands."
"These thirteen acres and sixteen perches or thereabouts"
became known as the Godfrey Ermen fields.

The inauguration ceremony in 1931 was presided over by the lord mayor of Manchester. At that ceremony, the field was dedicated "for ever and ever" for the use of all who choose to use it as a playing field. The lord mayor declared that the field was a "very fine lung" for Gorton and Openshaw. The field has not been used for sporting purposes since 1985. Even so, it has remained a valuable amenity to local residents—a green oasis in a heavily built-up area.

My constituency is one of the most heavily populated in the United Kingdom. In the list of the most densely populated parliamentary constituencies, it comes 47th out of 650. It is included in a Manchester and Salford inner-city partnership area in recognition of the deprivation that exists. It is in an area with one of the poorest health records in the city which, according to the city council, gives cause for concern. In the 1980s, people living in east Manchester, in which Gorton is situated, had a 73 to 78 per cent. greater likelihood of dying prematurely than people in the country as a whole. East Manchester has had more fatal and serious accidents involving children than anywhere else in Manchester, and it enjoys less recreational provision than the rest of the city. My constituents need the "very fine lung" provided by the green and open space of Godfrey Ermen field as much as they ever did.

A planning application for the use of the land for a residential development was refused in 1975, on the grounds, among others, that it conflicted with the provision of the city development plan which allocates the land for sports grounds and allotments and woud also result in the loss of playing fields, which are underprovided in east Manchester and the city as a whole.

The city planning department stated to me this week that a general presumption against developing existing playing fields such as this is built into the city's development plan and into the structure plan. The House can therefore imagine the alarm when reports recently began to circulate that the Godfrey Ermen field was to be sold—or even had been sold—for building purposes. Although it was established that the field had not been sold, within a short period 2,000 local residents had signed a petition requesting that the Godfrey Ermen field be saved. Many more would have signed if more time had been available before, with councillor Colin Brierley and a representative of the residents, I presented the petition to the lord mayor of Manchester on 13 October.

The leader of the city council wrote to me stating:
"The Playing Fields Association do admit that the land is surplus to their requirements and that they have had discussions with developers, including Barratts."
The city planning department wrote to councillor Anne Unwin last October stating:
"The land…is being marketed through the firm of estate agents, Dunlop Heywood."
Following the presentation of the petition, on 18 October 1989 I wrote to Mr. David Gallop, the secretary of Manchester and Salford Playing Fields Society, requesting a meeting to discuss the future of the playing fields. The meeting was to be attended by local residents, the ward councilors—Tom Hamnett, Colin Brierley and Anne Unwin—and myself. Mr. Gallop's reply ignored my request for a meeting, so I wrote again, again asking for a meeting. Mr. Gallop wrote back stating:
"the reason for not addressing the question of a meeting at this stage was to enable you"—
that is, myself or the residents—
"to put forward any suggestions you might think helpful, and which would serve as a basis for discussions at any such meeting."
What we wanted was a meeting to clarify the intentions of the playing fields society. Even so, I wrote again to Mr. Gallop saying that any suggestions could be put forward at the meeting and, once again, asking for a meeting. Mr. Gallop wrote back, stating:
"My offer of a meeting still stands"—
although he had not offered one—
"providing you first put forward suggestions in writing … failure to take advantage of this offer can only cast doubt on the motives for your suggested meeting."
On receipt of that completely unprovoked, nasty and offensive letter, I decided that nothing more could be gained from communicating with an individual who was clearly both arrogant and unpleasant—and just as clearly unfitted to hold the secretaryship of a charitable organisation.

I therefore tabled a motion on the Order Paper expressing concern and followed it up with a letter to the chairman of the playing fields society, Mr. Leslie Mellor, asking amicably and politely for the meeting previously requested. That was on 28 December. By 2 March, he had not replied, so on that date I wrote again, again in amicable terms, but also advising Mr. Mellor that a failure on his part to respond would leave me with only the recourse of using my parliamentary opportunities to air this matter. He still did not reply, so I have sought and obtained this debate.

Mr. Gallop wrote to a local resident on 9 March stating:
"As far as the right hon. Gerald Kaufman M.P. is concerned, every letter from him has been personally answered within 48 hours."
Mr. Gallop is a liar. None of my letters has been answered within 48 hours and the letters that I have sent since 28 December—nearly five months ago—have not been answered at all.

Mr. Gallop told me the Manchester Evening News yesterday:
"We have had no chance to reply".
Once again, he is a liar. He and Mr. Mellor have had seven months to reply, either at a meeting, which I have repeatedly requested, or in replies to my letters which Mr. Leslie Mellor has refused to provide. In any case, Mr. Gallop wrote to the Lord Mayor of Manchester on 18 April declaring:
"There is really no point in holding any meetings."
During the past few months, there has been a succession of odd events and disturbing discoveries. Mr. Gallop said on the telephone to one of my constituents, Mr. Trevor Mooney, who lives in Ackroyd avenue next to the Godfrey Ermen field, that the Manchester and Salford playing fields society was thinking of building on the field. He suggested to Mr. Mooney that he should sell his house to make way for an access road to the field. Why did he do that if there are no plans to build on the field?

Mr. Gallop wrote a letter to the lord mayor of Manchester containing a further lie—that he had given me assurances when he had given me none. In that letter he admitted:
"We have been approached at regular intervals by various property developers to sell the ground for housing etc but this is not uncommon with owners of land like ourselves. Discussions have taken place with some of these developers regarding their proposals, but nothing that might be acceptable has arisen from these discussions."
What on earth is a charitable trust doing having discussions with property developers about proposals from them about land bought by funds from a trust which was vested in the official trustee of charity lands and dedicated for use as a playing field "for ever and ever"?

Last month Mr. Richard Chambers, a representative of the surveyors Dunlop and Heywood, who act for the playing fields society, turned up at the Godfrey Ermen field. He handed his card to one of my constituents who lives in a neighbouring house in Violet street. He appeared to break the lock on the gate giving access to the field, to replace it with a new lock and to measure the width of the field.

My office has been in touch with Mr. Chambers this week and he states that he did no more than come and replace a broken lock. I do not question his word, but he will understand why in the present circumstances his action was interpreted with suspicion by local residents, especially as one of my constituents was told by Dunlop Heywood that plans had been drawn up for building on the playing field and three tenders had been received. My constituent was even told that three houses in Ackroyd avenue would have to be demolished to provide access.

I know nothing about Mr. David Gallop, the secretary of the playing fields society, other than that he is an untruthful and offensive person. However, unless there is more than one Leslie Mellor, I understand that Mr. Leslie Mellor, the chairman of the playing fields society, is an estate agent by profession, that he recently sold the estate agency which carried his name to another member of his family, Edward, and that Edward Mellor also owns a building company called East Manchester plc of which Leslie Mellor is said to be a director. If that is so, is Mr. Mellor a suitable person to be the chairman of a charitable organisation that owns land which, if made available for development, could be worth millions of pounds and on which 150 houses could be built?

Is an estate agent a suitable person to be the chairman of an organisation which admits to holding discussions about developing land which is clearly prey for property speculation? Who put Mr. Mellor in his position, and who put Mr. Gallop in his? To whom are they answerable? Clearly they are not answerable to local residents, local councillors or the local Member of Parliament, whom they ignore, misinform or tell lies to or about. How can they be got rid off?

Clearly, they are deplorable custodians of the land in their trust. I recently visited the Godfrey Ermen field. I had been told that a changing room on the field was regarded as a hazard to local children. Residents had therefore asked the playing fields society to secure it. Instead it demolished it, leaving a large pile of unsightly rubble.

The society has repeatedly been asked to secure the fence at the end of Coram street, which I saw when I visited the field. The Coram street outlet is in a deplorable mess and is both a hazard and an eyesore for people living in the street. I am told that, since the debate was announced, some action has been taken to provide a fence, but that it is makeshift and unsatisfactory.

Are we witnessing a scheme to sell land which is a local amenity, the development value of which could add up to millions of pounds? Are we simply witnessing no more than arrogance and insensitivity? I do not know. If Mr. Gallop and Mr. Mellor had been open and forthcoming, concerned local residents might have known. If, without the response of those people, we are forced to place our own interpretation on their role, they have only themselves to blame. If they will not provide answers, I ask the Government to do so.

Will the Government set up an inquiry into the activities of the Manchester and Salford Playing Fields Society and its officers? Will they inform me on behalf of my constituents whether those people have the right to have discussions about selling land which they hold as a charitable trust and which on purchase was vested in the official trustee of charity lands? Above all, will the Government protect an amenity valued by thousands of my constituents and give me the assurance that the Government will not permit the land to be sold?

In a letter to my constituent, Mr. Trevor Mooney, Mr. J. S. Donaldson of the Department of the Environment regional office in Manchester stated:
"Local authorities are generally best placed to make these difficult judgments on land uses on the basis of local needs, policies and priorities."
Manchester city council has made its position clear on these matters. Mr. Donaldson continued:
"The Government have urged local authorities to take into account the needs of the wider community and to consult local sport and recreation interests before allowing recreational land to be developed."
Those are encouraging words and I look forward to further encouraging words when the Minister replies.

My constituents reject any possibility of Godfrey Ermen field being built on. They want the fine lung provided for them by Godfrey Ermen's Trust—they want Godfrey Ermen field to be available for recreational use, as promised at its dedication, "for ever and ever". I look to the Government for the assurances for which my constituents ask and to which they have a right.

10.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Colin Moynihan)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on using this opportunity to raise a matter which is clearly of great concern to his constituents and on putting their case with his usual force and thoroughness. I echo his opening remarks by also congratulating Manchester United, friends and hon. Members who have a personal, constituency and sporting interest in its success this evening.

I well understand the feelings of residents in the Abbey Hey area of Gorton at seeing land which once provided a valuable recreational asset, and which appears capable of doing so again, being closed off and left unused. It must be particularly upsetting to them that the owners appear to be a body whose name suggests that its essential function is to provide recreational land.

The land is privately owned and, like all private land, its owners are entitled to use it as they wish, or not to use it at all, provided that they comply with any planning, building or other controls which may be relevant.

At this point it may be helpful if I say something about the Manchester and Salford Playing Fields Society and its activities. I am informed that the society was funded in 1907 by Mr. Will Melland, a local lads' club manager, with the object of providing playing fields for organised games for children, youths and adults of both sexes within or near the city of Manchester and the then borough of Salford.

The society was registered as a charity and is regulated by a scheme of the Charity Commission dated 23 August 1923. Within the scheme, the society has the power to sell, let, mortgage or exchange lands which are not immediately required or which it may be advantageous to the charity to do so. The power has been exercised from time to time when grounds have been sold and others bought or exchanged.

The Godfrey Ermen playing field was bought by the society in 1928 as a freehold property. Its last tenant was the GEC sports and social club, which relinquished its tenancy in 1985 after having spent several thousand pounds of its own money trying to correct a drainage problem. The society says that, in order to attract another client, it would first be necessary to correct the drainage of the field. Its investigations have shown that the cost of a full drainage system would be prohibitive, and the field has been left fallow while its future has been considered. Because of vandalism, the society has had to demolish the pavilion which stood on the land, and on the likely income from the field the society could not expect to be able to replace it.

Since GEC left in 1985, the society has received only two inquiries about the use of the playing field. As has rightly been said by the right hon. Member for Gorton, the society has, however, had various approaches from property developers and others interested in developing the land. However, it still remains in the ownership of the society. That is the position as the society has described it.

I cannot speak for the society, nor can I say what view the Charity Commission would be likely to take of any proposal by the society to dispose of the Godfrey Ermen land. However, I can say something about the planning background which may be relevant should a proposal to develop the land proceed.

It is clearly desirable that urban land should he used effectively. In urban areas, the provision of open spaces, whether as playing fields or as areas for walking and informal recreation, may be as desirable as the provision of land for houses or even for employment generating development. One of the Government's aims, therefore, is to ensure that recreational land and facilities are not unjustifiably lost. But competing pressures on local authorities for housing and industrial development sometimes mean that recreational land will either be relocated or lost, particularly when it has fallen into disuse.

The clear advice given to the right hon. Gentleman by the local office of the Department of the Environment rightly shows—and I echo the right hon. Gentleman's words—that local authorities are generally best placed to make these difficult judgments on land use on the basis of local needs, policies and priorities and are therefore the authorities primarily responsible for regulating development in their own areas. The planning Acts have given local authorities ample powers to prevent remaining open spaces from being built upon when, having regard to their local development plan and other national considerations, they consider it right to do so.

I understand that Manchester city council did indeed refuse a planning application for permission to build houses on the Godfrey Ermen playing field in 1975. Whether it would do so again if a new application were made to it would be a matter for the council to determine in the light of all considerations that might be relevant at the time. No doubt the council would have regard, among other things, to a policy in the Greater Manchester structure plan, which is still operative, that seeks to minimise losses of land and facilities used for leisure purposes and to encourage the replacement or relocation of those amenities when they cannot be saved. But it would also need to have regard to any other considerations that might be material and it would not be right for me to speculate about what the council's decision might be.

The Government have urged local authorities to take account of the needs of the wider community and, as has been said, it is important to consult local sporting and recreational interests before allowing recreational land to be developed for other purposes. I have no doubt that Manchester city council will do this should a planning application for the Godfrey Ermen land be made. I know that the council takes the loss of recreational land seriously and seeks to have it replaced with land which is equally good in quality as well as in quantity.

Although, as I have said, the decision on a planning application would be for the council in the first place and is not a matter on which it would be proper for me to speculate, I have no doubt that, in reaching its decision, the council would give very careful consideration to the effect of a proposal on recreational provision in east Manchester.

Before a planning application is received, it could well be that the council will have the benefit of a planning policy guidance note on sport and recreation which the Government hope to issue to consolidate and update existing planning guidance to local authorities. The right hon. Gentleman might find it helpful to know that the Government's main agency for advising on and helping to develop opportunities for sport and recreation is the Sports Council, an independent body sponsored by my Department. Through the regional councils for sport and recreation, the Sports Council rightly monitors the provision of recreational land and facilities at local level and seeks to ensure that recreational land is retained.

I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's points about his constituency and about the need for adequate provision of recreational land and open space. That is especially important at a time when it is all too easy in built-up constituencies, such as his and mine, with declining school rolls and 1 million fewer children likely to be in school in 1994 than in 1984, for recreational land to be disposed of.

One of the key points about the planning policy guidance note that we hope shortly to publish for consultation, is to reinforce the importance of open land and good recreational space being available. It is so easy to build on recreational land and so difficult to provide for future generations and the numbers of children who would wish to benefit from open space, especially those living in heavily built-up urban areas. It is difficult to undo what has been done by developers.

I have considerable sympathy with the strength of opinion that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed. Those of us who are responsible for sport and recreation and for the education of children must emphasise the importance of open space and recreational land; hence my support for the principle that he has espoused this evening. However, I am sure that he would be the first to recognise that, when wearing a planning hat, it is right and proper that I should not intervene in what might become a case to be considered in due course by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The future of the Godfrey Ermen playing field, like any other privately owned land, lies primarily with its owners. Like other owners, they are free to make proposals for its future development, and are free also to seek to acquire the property of their neighbours if they consider that that might help them to produce a more acceptable development scheme. Only when they have produced a scheme and require planning permission for it do they need to make an approach to the council. In the meantime, if they choose not to use their land, the planning system cannot force them to use it.

The planning system cannot force landowners to open up their land for use by the public or to use it in any way that they choose not to do. However, if an authority considers that land is required for development, redevelopment or improvement, or for a purpose it is necessary to achieve in the interests of the proper planning of an area, it may use its powers to acquire it, by agreement or compulsorily, to ensure that it is used properly.

The right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to say whether the use of the council's powers would be justified in the case of the Godfrey Ermen land or of any other land in Manchester. Nor would it be right for me to express any opinion about what might be its proper use because, as I have said, it is a question that could come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the form of a planning appeal or in compulsory purchase proceedings.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether my right hon. Friend would be prepared to hold an inquiry into the affairs of the society. I understand his wish, and that of his constituents, to have the future of the Godfrey Ermen land resolved, but there is no planning issue at present that would justify intervention by the Secretry of State into the affairs of that private organisation. As I explained, if the society put forward planning proposals for the land, the city council would consider them. If, failing proposals being put to it, the council thought that the planning interest of the community justified it, it might seek to acquire the land. In either event, the matter could come before the Secretary of State and be fully ventilated at an inquiry into a planning appeal or a compulsory purchase order.

For the moment all that I can say to local people and to the right hon. Gentleman is that they should ensure that their views about the land are made clear to the city council so that they might be given proper weight in the event of a planning application being made. If they are concerned that there is a good planning case for putting this land into active recreational use, and are unable to persuade the owners to do that, they must put their case to the council and press it to consider the possibility of acquiring the land.

It is important for planning authorities to move briskly to a position where planning decisions can be taken in the context of up-to-date development plans. The procedures leading to the adoption of such plans offer considerable opportunities for public consultation and for the consideration of objections and representations. Once plans have been adopted, therefore, decisions guided by them are likely to carry considerable weight and to be less susceptible to challenge than others.

The right hon. Member might well consider it in the interests of the people of Gorton, both in relation to the Godfrey Ermen land and otherwise, to do all that he can to encourage Manchester city council to proceed with the utmost vigour and speed with the production of its unitary plan.

A major scheme at Longsight, east Manchester, is the city-wide athletic facility at the former Ducie high school, where more than £1 million has been approved for the reclamation of 6·8 hectares of school playing fields to provide a regional field and track athletic facility.

Therefore, the Government are far from unmindful of the value of open spaces and recreational facilities in inner urban areas such as Gorton. However, local planning problems are essentially matters for the local planning authority, and it remains with Manchester city council to use its planning powers as necessary in order to deal with the problems of individual sites.

Once again, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman. He has made his case clear, and it is on the record. He has taken the interests of his constituents one step further. I thank him for giving us the opportunity to consider the importance of open space for good recreational provision, to ensure that it is not lost, and to re-emphasise, as he has done, the importance of preserving the quality of life for so many people in inner-city areas by making open space and recreational fields available for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.