It is a pleasure, Mr Havard, to serve under your chairmanship. I sought this debate on behalf of bowlers—crown and flat green alike—who are facing a growing crisis that is emerging not only in the game’s traditional heartlands, such as my constituency of Barrow and Furness in the north-west of England, but wherever the cry of “jack high” is heard.
Bowling is part of the fabric of these islands. Its precise origins are obscured by the mists of time, but a form of the sport that we know today was certainly flourishing on Plymouth Hoe as far back as 1588. On the Hoe, as elsewhere in the country, the game in under threat. The reassuring click of kissing wood is gradually being replaced by the unsettling clank of mechanical diggers ripping up greens in every corner of Britain.
Local bowlers, led by green keeper Keith Mills, first alerted me to this problem soon after I became MP for Barrow and Furness at the previous election. Seven Furness greens had been redeveloped since the mid-1990s, and there were fears that more could follow. The “Hands off our Bowling Greens” campaign was born on College Green just across the way. With a bit of mowing and rolling, it would make a surprisingly good bowling green.
My ten-minute rule Bill, the Protection of Bowling Greens (Development Control) Bill, was presented to the House in March 2011. The combined pressure resulted in a promise of action from the Government. On August bank holiday three years ago, the Minister’s Department for Communities and Local Government announced that bowling greens would receive greater protection under the national planning policy framework. That move was, of course, welcome, but since then it has all gone very quiet and greens continue to disappear. In written answers, Ministers have not been able to tell me how many greens have been designated as local green spaces under the new powers. The Minister may have the figures at his fingertips now in his reply.
Our greens continue to be trapped in a vicious pincer movement. Council-owned greens are falling victim to spending cuts—as in the case of the one I recently visited at Hove at the invitation of superb local parliamentary candidate, Peter Kyle. The local Green party-run council, no less, is threatening the future of well-used greens. It is hard to believe that it is using one of them as a dumping ground for refuse.
Many privately owned lawns are tempting prospects for development, especially if the pub or social club to which they are attached is struggling financially. As greens shut down in an area, players drift away. It is estimated that around 40% of bowlers where a green closes leave the game altogether, even if there is another green half a mile or so down the road.
These bowling greens are at the heart of their local communities, providing social interaction as well as physical activity. Too often, we see underhand tactics from the owners of greens to make them appear unused and thereby smooth the path to selling them off, right down to some examples, including one in my constituency that I will go into in a more detail in a moment, of bowlers finding the locks on the gates to the greens super-glued shut.
Only last month, another story emerged. I am grateful to Mel Evans, a friend, a bowls commentator and keeper of the flame in Staffordshire, who was recently deservedly awarded an MBE for services to the sport. He provided me with fresh information that McKechnie’s club in Aldridge in the west midlands has become one of the latest community clubs to come under threat. That bowling green was attached to a once-booming factory that has closed down. The bowls team played in a number of local leagues and its members were told just a few weeks ago that they must vacate their premises and find another home. Such short notice has caused a crisis for members that they are still grappling with. That is another example of how economic woes in apparently unrelated sectors are threatening the game of bowls.
Some people might ask why that matters. Bowling helps form the sinews that make this country great, obviously, but there is even more to it than that. The health costs alone of seeing greens closed could be enormous. Think of the savings to social care and the NHS from keeping older people active—physically, mentally and socially—longer into retirement.
Bowling is for all ages. I am a retired crown green bowler, having played in the junior leagues in Sheffield in my youth. It is obviously particularly popular among older people. It is a top 10 sport in this country, although it receives nothing like top 10 billing around the country and on the nation’s media. It is a vital antidote to the sedentary lifestyle that some older players might otherwise lead. For the price of keeping open a bowling green—under £10,000 a year—the potential is there to save far more in reduced health care costs.
There are groups valiantly taking action. Bowls England and the British Crown Green Bowling Association do a sterling job on behalf of bowlers across the country. Organisations such as Fields in Trust offer support with recreational land protection to communities. Sport England, according to figures it gave me yesterday, has so far offered support to 54 clubs from the inspired facilities fund, totalling nearly £2 million. However, we need to do so much more.
To mark the start of the new bowling season, last month I was proud to launch, alongside Peter Kyle, the Labour Bowlers’ Charter at the Hove and Kingsway Bowling Club on the south coast. We and local bowlers became the charter’s first signatories at a club that has lost three greens owing to cuts. Although that is a Labour initiative, I think the point of the charter can command cross-party support and would certainly do so much in offering greater protection to the sport and to the conservative estimate of 400,000 people who regularly enjoy it.
The charter calls first for an end to active bowling greens being designated as surplus to requirements by local planning authorities, thereby allowing the redevelopment of the greens—building over them—to go ahead. Secondly, it calls a halt to the practice of locking bowlers out of their greens. I am sorry to tell the Minister, but it was at Dalton’s Conservative club in my constituency where bowlers turned up for practice one September morning in 2009 and found that the electricity and the water at the club house had been turned off and the gates to the green had had the locks changed. Those appalling tactics were designed to put the green out of use forcibly and soften it up for redevelopment. That is the fate that has befallen too many bowling organisations that were attached to pubs and clubs.
Thirdly, the charter calls for the creation of a community right to buy for any green where disposal is agreed to by the planning authority. Where a club is prepared to commit to keeping the green in use, bowlers would be given the opportunity to buy it on the basis of its market value as—this is really important—a sporting facility, which is often much more affordable than the amount developers are prepared to pay.
Fourthly, the charter calls for extra support for bowlers who want to form co-operatives to run threatened greens. We should help clubs that are willing to form such co-ops to preserve their prized assets. This is a field in which Supporters Direct has blazed a trail for other sports. The Co-op club in Barrow has flourished since taking that route to protect its green. When its members were offered the green and clubhouse by the Co-op, people living in the vicinity even gave extra money towards the cost to prevent the land from being built on.
So how about it? Does the Minister want to sign up to our charter today? I have a copy right here if he wishes, but if he wants a bit of time to mull it over, will he at least answer the following questions?
Have the Government made any assessment of whether the local green spaces designation powers announced in 2011 are effective in protecting bowling greens? How many greens have been protected through that process? Are communities finding the rules and regulations too bureaucratic, as we fear?
Will the Government consider a community right-to-buy scheme specifically for bowling greens, where they are in active use and threatened by development, with the right of a vote by the bowlers themselves—the people who actively take part in the sport and not the wider club, where sometimes, financial fears can overtake the poor, embattled team members?
Will the Minister agree to raise the protection of bowling greens linked to pubs with major pub chains, which may be able to make a difference? Will he join the Department of Health in commissioning a study to quantify what I hope we both agree are the undoubted health benefits and savings to the NHS and social care budgets from people continuing to bowl?
Finally, will the Minister agree to join the House of Commons team in the first annual House of Lords versus House of Commons bowling match in July, adding his no doubt great skills to the elected side and showing his support for Britain’s bowlers?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard, and to discuss a matter that is close to my heart, to my name and to lots of other things.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing a debate on a matter that not only concerns his constituency, but many constituencies, including one he mentioned where I previously stood as the parliamentary candidate—Hove and Portslade. I was very familiar with the bowling greens and bowling clubs there and with the important role that they play in providing recreation, fresh air and social contact for many people, and particularly retired people in that community.
I also welcome the debate because we heard a poetic speech from the hon. Gentleman about the virtues and history of bowling. Conservative Members have a great affection for the great Englishman who was found playing bowls in Plymouth when the Spanish decided to come knocking. It is perhaps a little unfair of me, but I always thought that as a buccaneer in an early version of the global race, Sir Francis was clearly a Conservative supporter.
On protections for bowling greens, I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. In time, when he is serving as a Minister in a Department of State—in 10 or 20 years—he will discover one of the features of Government, which is that people legislate, and create new powers and possibilities, and it is often a very long time before those to whom powers and possibilities have been given take them up with the enthusiasm and gusto that the Government had originally intended. In the Localism Act 2011, as he mentioned, we created powers that had never existed before on the statute book to designate places as local green spaces—in a sense, as a planning matter, to say that a particular piece of ground that is open and green has a value to the community, and people want it to be recognised as that, and then any planning decision needs to take that into account as a material consideration in considering any proposal to build on a local green space.
We also created the concept of an asset of community value and the ability to register various kinds of community assets as assets of community value, with particular protections stemming from that. The asset of community value provision gives a community the ability to say that a particular asset can only be put up for sale—and for sale with a view to convert it into some other use—after the community has been given an opportunity to bid for that asset. They have to register their interest in bidding, and then they have a six-month moratorium in which no transaction or sale can take place in order to be able to put together a bid for an asset that is designated in that way. That provision has great potential power, if only authorities would use it.
It was really useful to take through that provision. Will the Minister say what the definition of a community is in that regard? The concern to which I alluded was that sometimes the bowling club forms a minority in the community, but nevertheless, its needs and the bowling green’s value should not be ignored and overruled by a larger group.
That is a very good question. I shall ask for support—for a definition of a community interest group. Meanwhile, I will go on to explain how it works, then come back to that point.
Ultimately, the point of the Localism Act was to do what it said on the tin, which was to further localism. Localism takes place, as it were, on many different levels. There is the level of individual community groups, neighbourhood groups and the like, and there are the democratically elected authorities that represent them, such as district councils, county councils and metropolitan councils. Ultimately, the decision making about whether to list an asset as an asset of community value, with the protections, therefore, that flow out of that, has to rest with a democratically accountable body, which is the local authority. Therefore, a community interest group needs to persuade its local authority—the only authority that has a democratic mandate to make such decisions on behalf of the public—to accept the proposal to designate something as an asset of community value.
I am fortunately now informed that a community interest group can be just 21 local people on the electoral register in the area in which the asset is located, so hopefully, even if, as the hon. Gentleman says, they are just a subset of the membership of a broader club, finding 21 people to form such a community interest group is within the reach of most existing bowling greens.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman had possibly applied for this debate, in part, to celebrate a decision that was made very recently—indeed, only a week ago. It was one of the very first appeals that we are aware of against a decision by a district council to register a bowls club as an asset of community value. I will spend a little time explaining that decision.
Rother district council decided on 16 September 2013 to include the site of Gullivers bowls club at Bexhill-on-Sea on its list of community assets, and there was an appeal against that decision. The owner of a bowls club, or some other party, quite properly has the right to appeal against a decision in which they have an interest. I am delighted to report that the first-tier tribunal general regulatory chamber, which for some reason hears such appeals rather than the Planning Inspectorate, found that it was entirely proper for Rother district council to register Gullivers bowls club on its list of community assets.
Such decisions include a test of whether the criteria for an asset of community value have been met by a bowls club. An important criterion is that the bowling green is still sustainable in its current use and, as the hon. Gentleman points out, has not become neglected. I was truly shocked to hear of the case he mentioned in which a bowls club’s locks were superglued shut. I have no doubt that if such evidence were presented to any appeal or tribunal, it would dramatically undermine any claims that a bowling green is no longer in use and therefore no longer sustainable. It is clearly not fair if people who want to play bowls cannot access a bowling green.
I hope the hon. Gentleman and those who are keen on the sport of bowls will take encouragement from this debate that powers and provisions already exist. The local green space power is important but, if anything, the asset of community value power is more important. Within that power—he talked about the right to buy—there is a community right to bid. A community can say, “This is an asset that we want to preserve in its current use, and we want to have a bit of time to raise money through a local appeal, or whatever it is, to acquire that asset and retain it in its existing use.”
I thank the Minister for giving way again. This is all helpful. He mentioned at the beginning of his speech the difficulties found between setting out the Government’s intentions, putting in place the needed legislative changes and the time it takes for those changes to reach fruition. I am sure he has a sense of the difficulty of translating those intentions on the ground, even once the changes have been made. How will he monitor how the changes actually work on the ground and address our fear that the powers are either not known or seen as too bureaucratic?
The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question, and to some extent I throw it back at him. I am happy to work with him, and with any associations that exist in the sport, to write to every bowling green and bowling club in the country to make them aware of the powers under the Localism Act to register as an asset of community value and as a local green space, to draw their attention to the two bowling greens of which we are aware—there is not only the Rother case that we have just discussed but a bowling green in Camden, too—that have been registered as assets of community value and to make them aware that the bowling green in Rother was able to sustain that position against a challenge. The designation was upheld on appeal. Hopefully, we will be able to encourage other bowling greens to take up that right, because it may be the case that, first, they are not aware of the right and that, secondly, even local authorities are not necessarily completely up to speed on how the right works and how other people are using it. I am happy to ensure that bowling greens and bowling clubs across the country are aware of those rights, but I might need to work with him and through him to do so.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman invited me to join a match. I hope he understands, as he would if he had ever witnessed me take part in any athletic activity, and certainly any activity involving a moving ball, that I decided long ago at the start of my political career that I would say no to any invitation to partake in a sport. If it satisfies him, however, I would be pleased to attend and cheer on the more able participants.