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House of Commons Hansard
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Local Area Referendum (Disposal of School Playing Fields) Bill
22 January 2016
Volume 604

Second Reading

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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

On 29 June 2015 when I first introduced this Bill, we were coming up to our great British summer. It is a time when we see increased use of our open spaces for sports such as tennis and—more importantly, in my view—cricket, as well as walking and other activities. The Bill’s Second Reading comes at the start of the new year, when everyone has probably eaten a little too much over Christmas and is motivated to kick the year off by exercising, or perhaps by joining a new club or team—organisations that take pride in using local pitches and playing field facilities. Dare I mention last year’s rugby world cup? Although England did not make the final rounds, many young people were captivated, and the players of tomorrow are now halfway through the rugby union season.

School playing fields are a vital part of local life, and in many cases they bring together communities through their use by local sports teams, as well as by school pupils at breaks, lunchtimes and PE lessons. The Bill will give residents a real say over the future of their local recreational ground—something that currently is explicitly limited to a local authority decision.

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I am sure that we all have a degree of sympathy with the aim of this Bill. My hon. Friend just said that such matters are down to the local authority, but that is not quite the case. There is already a rigorous process, and a whole raft of protocols, hoops and public consultation to go through before the Secretary of State gives their consent for a disposal. In the light of those already strict criteria, does my hon. Friend think that this Bill is a little like overkill?

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My hon. Friend and I agree on many things but not on that point. The facts speak for themselves. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 242 disposals of school playing field land, and there have been 103 since 2010. I have great confidence in communities making decisions that are right for their area. For example, neighbourhood planning has been a positive step forward because it has allowed local people to determine the vision for their area. There is a lack of confidence in the way that the system currently works, and particularly in the mechanisms that work through the Department for Education, and as I said, a number of playing fields have been disposed of. Ultimately, once those spaces are gone they are gone for good, and I will return to that point later in my remarks.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and he and I share the same county council. I am rather surprised by the attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), because he is speaking against Government policy. The Government are absolutely in favour of localism and in letting local people decide. I am not sure his remarks were very career-enhancing, and I want to support the Government and get this Bill on the statute book.

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I always appreciate the support of my hon. Friend and neighbour on these matters.

In late November 2013, Public Health England launched the “Healthy People Healthy Places” programme, which aims to help improve health and wellbeing through better planning and design, and to reduce the impact of poor physical and natural environments. The priorities include incorporating physical activity, such as brisk walking and cycling, into everyday life and creating an environment where people actively choose to be mobile as part of their routine. That can have a significant effect on public health, by reducing inequalities in personal health.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence—it is shame that the Health Minister is no longer in her place—estimates that physical inactivity costs the national economy £8.2 billion a year, which is a significant sum. It is therefore ironic that although successive Governments have promoted the importance of healthy living and the role that sport and walking play in that, there has been a dwindling amount of open space in which to get out and get active, and an increasing number of playing fields have been sold.

Clearly, open spaces such as school playing fields are key to getting people active, and as many people as possible should have access to this land. Indeed, there are many excellent examples all over the country where schools open their doors and their grounds for use by the community, both out of term-time and out of school hours. In too many cases, however, the land is being sold off by public bodies for development purposes.

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My hon. Friend is making an interesting case, but does he not agree that the provisions in the National Planning Policy Framework mean that no school is able to get rid of any playing fields unless a suitable replacement is found elsewhere and there will not be a net loss of playing field provision to that school?

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I will make some progress, but I will come on to the specific issue of replacement later on in my remarks.

At the moment, the Government are being very bold in their commitment to additional housebuilding and the right to buy. Indeed, as the Minister knows, in Northamptonshire—not only in the county, but in my constituency—we are at the forefront when it comes to building new homes. In fact, Corby is the fastest-growing town in the whole country, a clear sign of our strong and stable economy built under a Conservative Government and evidence of the fact that our area has been quite ambitious in grappling with the Government’s agenda and in trying to support housebuilding where we can. I am, however, a very firm believer—in all the time I spent in local government prior to entering this House, I continued to stress this point—that alongside housebuilding there must always be the infrastructure in place to support it. By selling off school playing fields, not only do we lose the space for schools to expand—Education Ministers openly acknowledge the fact that we have far too many landlocked schools, and this is a particular concern to my constituents in Oundle—but with housing growth we inevitably need more open space and greater pitch provision to meet growing local need.

Clearly, land for housing should be chosen carefully and not at the expense of land that exists to serve the local community. As such, the Bill comes at a good time to help to safeguard school playing field land. On a number of occasions since my election in May 2015, I have referenced a local case where Northamptonshire County Council has been working towards selling off part of the playing field at the site of Oundle Primary School. This has been met with huge opposition not only from local residents but from Oundle Town Council and East Northamptonshire Council. Unfortunately, this work is still ongoing, but luckily the local campaign against it continues to sustain its momentum. Indeed, the petition has now received over 4,000 signatories and is still growing—bear in mind that this is a town of 4,500 people. This point comes back to an earlier intervention: there is such overwhelming support for the playing field land not to be sold that it is wrong to ignore that fact through the statutory processes that exist.

I am led to believe that the case will go before the Secretary of State for Education to decide whether this playing field can be sold off. I am in the process of drafting my very strongly worded submission against the sale and I hope the Secretary of State will take it, and the monumental scope of the local campaign, into account when reaching her decision. The playing field continues to be well used by Oundle Primary School. Over the years, many sports clubs have used the land to fulfil weekend fixtures, and weekend and week-night training opportunities for adults and young people. The land will continue to be well used by the local community, as long as it is retained for that particular purpose. There is a real lack of sports provision, pitches and green open space in Oundle for people to get out there and get active. In Northamptonshire, we are already plagued by a situation in which far too many sports teams have to go out of county to fulfil home fixtures. That is very, very wrong. They should be able to play their home games in the vicinity of where they come from.

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I think there is a bit of confusion here. Prior to 2010, of course, the process my hon. Friend talks about was in place. Since 2010, however, the rules on the disposal of playing fields have been changed. The Secretary of State makes the final decision. He or she will take into account the statutory six-week consultation, four of which have to be in term-time. They will take into account local people’s views and they will say yes to disposing of them only if the sporting needs, not just of the particular school but neighbouring schools, are taken into account.

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That is a welcome step forward, but I maintain that it does not go far enough. How can it be right that 4,000 residents in a town could be ignored in the system? We have a referendum if council tax is put up above a certain level. I think it makes sense to have a referendum if local people are getting out there, getting motivated and running a well-organised campaign. That should be acknowledged, but I will come back to the detail later.

It is important that I say a huge thank you to Julie Grove and the Oundle recreation and green spaces committee for their efforts in support of the Oundle campaign and to the recently started campaign, through the same auspices, to save Fletton field, which is a hot topic locally. The committee is not only continuing the fight to save Oundle Primary School’s playing field, but turning its attention to Fletton field, which is a community field for which Oundle Town Council has recently submitted an application for village green status. Around the same time, Northamptonshire County Council submitted an application to build 13 houses, with no prior consultation with the community, despite its being a well-used piece of land.

My Bill seeks to improve the consultation with communities when land is up for sale or when that is being considered by a local authority. Presumably, the county council is attempting to attract the best value for this land, which planning permission would help it to achieve, but in doing so it has shown no regard for the village green application. I find that unacceptable. How can it be right that the wishes of the local community can be ridden roughshod over and the land sold against its wishes?

I turn now to another part of my constituency. I was pleased when, at the end of last year, Kings Cliffe Active, a sports and recreation complex set on a 12-acre site in the village of Kings Cliffe, secured a grant of £74,000 from Sport England. The grant will go towards building and maintaining new tennis and netball courts. The case of Kings Cliffe Active demonstrates that grants and support are available for sports provision and that the demand is clearly there, and I was delighted to visit this fantastic sporting facility to discuss its plan just prior to Christmas.

On a national level, I have spoken to many supportive right. hon. and hon. Members from across the House about similar issues in their constituencies. In fact, if one googles “MPs and playing fields”, one will find that many colleagues have championed local cases such as the one I am helping with in Oundle. The evidence is there and plain to see. I have also been contacted by an astounding number of local associations, sports clubs, charities and other organisations wanting to share their experiences and express their support for the Bill. In particular, I would like to thank Meryl Smith, the secretary of the National Playing Fields Association, for her continued help and support.

Interestingly, a national petition has also been set up in support of the Bill asking the Government to do almost exactly the same thing as the Bill seeks to do. This further demonstrates the strength of feeling not just in my area, but across the country. I thank James Allen Hardaker for his work setting up the petition.

I turn to the crux of the Bill. It seeks to build on the localism agenda and the Government’s excellent measures around protecting assets of community value. It would enshrine it in the law that should a public body wish to sell off school playing fields, it must go through a statutory consultation. One of the biggest complaints is that consultation on these sales nationally has been shockingly woeful. I propose, therefore, that should a verifiable percentage of electors in any ward who are specially and directly affected sign a petition, it would trigger a local referendum, the result of which would be binding for up to 10 years. Essentially, this would provide a genuine localist lock and ensure that the strength of local feeling is reflected in the decision taken.

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Does my hon. Friend not concede that in some communities across the community an important case could be made for increasing provision in a school area and moving additional provision elsewhere and that this might be popular in terms of the school’s development, but that it could come up against opposition from people familiar with that space near the school? Is there not a risk of allowing vexatious and bureaucratic processes to enter into the system, when the National Planning Policy Framework already contains safeguards?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, which raises an important point—one that I intended to reach in a few seconds’ time. He has pre-empted what I was about to say. Clearly, there are concerns about that, which I shall address as part of my remarks.

At the moment, I believe that the provisions on neighbourhood planning in the National Planning Policy Framework are not yet tested and tried sufficiently to know for sure that they are watertight in respect of these issues. As I say, where such an overwhelming strength of local feeling can be demonstrated, local people should ultimately have a right of veto.

In other words, the Bill is designed to prevent a situation in which the 4,000 people in Oundle or electors anywhere in the country can be ignored in the way that they have been in the past. In short, this is about a community right to veto any proposal to sell a playing field where the local community feels strongly that doing so is not in the best interests of the area.

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My hon. Friend is delivering a most interesting speech. Would this right of veto be absolute if, say, a piece of national infrastructure were planned and the school attached to the playing fields was going to be closed? Would a referendum still apply in those circumstances or apply only if it were intended that the school would continue?

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I thank my hon. Friend, who always asks very difficult questions. A number of particular regulations are specified in the Bill that would require the Department for Communities and Local Government to do some consultation work. We could get to the crux of that sort of issue in a Bill Committee. Ministers would need to look at the provisions in some detail to get the Bill right. I am not saying that I have all the answers already. I view the Bill as offering a broad outline of something that could be done to provide greater protection for school playing field land. As for the finer regulatory details that would need to play a part in this, it is important to take account of the various case studies up and down the country and ensure that the arrangements are right.

Let me return to the issue of provision elsewhere. The Bill does not seek to stop the selling of playing fields per se. It merely allows those who use these important green spaces to make the case for them to be kept, and to have a real say over the decision. If, of course, it can be demonstrated that the benefits from selling any such land, such as a new school being built with equal or upgraded facilities or alternative provision being provided elsewhere as a direct swap, there is nothing to fear.

I am aware of a local case where this happened. In Kibworth in Leicestershire, David Wilson Homes was very keen to build a new development on a piece of land that included the site of the cricket club. An agreement was reached between the local community, the cricket club and the builders, which meant that the existing cricket club land was built on, but it was replaced elsewhere, delivering not only a better pavilion facility but an extra cricket square. There was a demonstrable benefit to the local community from that taking place, and local people came in behind that and supported it. I would not view that differently for anywhere else in the country where better facilities or direct swaps are being proposed. What we are seeing in Oundle, however, is the taking away of land in an area where there is limited open space for people to get out and get active.

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My hon. Friend is generous in giving way, and he is making a powerful and persuasive case. I would like to suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who made such a good intervention, should be a member of the Bill Committee after Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) will know from his own experience of the lack of cricket pitches and playing fields in Northamptonshire. In fact, I have to travel to the next county to play home games for Wellingborough Old Grammarians. We really must stop unnecessary sales of playing fields. Has my hon. Friend had the same experience?

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My hon. Friend knows that I have had exactly that experience. I would be delighted to have my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on the Bill Committee. He would bring a great deal of expertise, knowledge and interest to proceedings.

I think I have now dealt with the particular point about making alternative provision elsewhere. The balance is about right when it comes to protecting existing playing fields, but if enhancements and improvements can be delivered elsewhere, this Bill does not, of course, stand in the way of that happening.

Let me draw my remarks to a conclusion. The Bill is about ensuring that local communities have a genuine say and a real opportunity to influence the future shaping of their areas. It builds on many actions taken by the Government of which I am very proud, such as neighbourhood planning and community rights to bid and buy. Those initiatives have proved successful throughout the country, but I think the Bill would take that success a step further, and would be greatly welcomed everywhere.

Today I have stressed the health benefits and the community value that are associated with accessible school playing field land, but I hope that the Bill will also bring an end to the ignoring by public bodies and local authorities of local grassroots campaigns in which residents fight hard to protect their local playing fields. The Minister may claim that that the planning system and the Department for Education procedures provide specific protection for school playing fields, but I am afraid that, as I have said before, people out there in the country simply do not share that confidence, owing to both past and present experience.

The outcome of the Oundle case remains to be seen, but I shall be submitting the strongest possible objection. People will be very disappointed if the sale is allowed. As I have said, there is already a lack of space, and members of the community are keen to become involved in trying to protect that piece of land. I have no fond memories of playing cricket on the site of Oundle Primary School, but I still think that the site has an important role in our community, and I want the land to be protected for cricketers—and, indeed, sportsmen of all kind—in the years to come.

I also think that the Bill is consistent with the Prime Minister’s localism agenda. It would provide a localist lock, and would put local people truly in the driving seat for perhaps the first time. We really do have a duty to protect school playing fields for future generations, and I commend the Bill to the House.

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I have some sympathy with the case presented by the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). I think that Members on both sides of the House recognise the importance of school playing fields to the development of fitness in our young people, and also to the wider community. We want both sportsmen and sportswomen to benefit.

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Given that the hon. Lady is now championing these sports fields, does she regret the fact that, according to research conducted by Fields in Trust, more than 2,500 were sold between 1997 and 2005? That is more than 26 sites per month.

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I was just coming to that point. In 2004, the Labour Government introduced new measures to protect our school playing fields, and to ensure that such land was subject to a decision by the Secretary of State. The revised guidance contained a general presumption against the need to sell, dispose of or change the use of playing fields. It also maintained the existing presumptions that only sports pitches that were surplus to the needs of local schools and their communities should be sold, and all proceeds should be reinvested in the improvement of local sports facilities.

Furthermore, planning policy guidance note 17 sought to strengthen the protection of school playing fields through the planning system, and explained how such sites could be renewed, upgraded and extended to serve the needs of the whole community through dual use of facilities. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that, in 2012, the national planning policy framework updated some of the policy in PPG note 17, although not in quite as much detail as the hon. Member for Corby might like. The 2004 guidance was updated in May 2015, again to continue the protections that were already in place for school playing fields.

The Bill seeks to balance the power that rests with the Secretary of State with a greater say for the local community, and, as I have said, we strongly approve of that. However, it also provides for public consultation, a petition, and, if the threshold is met, a possible referendum. I think we should be given more detail about which members of the public will be consulted over what area, about who will pay for that, and about who will pay for the referendum if one is triggered. As we all know, local authorities, particularly in our more disadvantaged areas, are struggling because of Government cuts, and the Bill will obviously add to their responsibilities.

I wonder whether the hon. Member for Corby has concluded that the assets of community value provisions and neighbourhood planning are not quite up to the task of requiring greater consultation before there is a disposal of playing fields. They are clearly not adequate, or else he would not have to introduce this Bill. I also wonder whether he has looked at the provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill, under which, if a playing field is designated as brownfield, it could simply have permission in principle given to it, and it could be given planning permission for the development of housing without going through any process.

We very much agree with the sentiment behind the Bill. We would like to see greater community consultation before disposal is made, but some questions need to be asked.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) on securing this private Member’s Bill. I am afraid that while his aims at first glance seem laudable, for the reasons I am going to explain, the Government are not able to support this Bill.

School playing fields are important both as spaces for healthy exercise and as valuable community assets. That is why under existing legislation any local authority or school seeking to dispose of publicly funded school land must seek the Secretary of State for Education’s consent before doing so. The Government maintain particularly strict controls around the disposal of school playing field land. In addition, where a local authority is considering disposal of such an asset, the decision should be taken in an accountable and transparent manner.

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The Minister says that the Secretary of State will make a decision. Is he honestly saying that Secretaries of State will look at all these planning applications and make a decision—or is it bumped off to an official?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend that the decision is made by the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State has to sign off any such disposal of playing field land. To reassure him further, I had a derelict site in my constituency. It had been a school a considerable number of years before and encompassed not a playing field but a playground. My local authority wanted to sell that land to fund new classrooms in a school with a playing field which was opposite that site. It took an inordinate amount of time for that process to take place, such is the high bar a local authority has to meet to dispose of a school playing field.

The planning system is concerned with the use and development of land. It has an important role to play in helping to achieve sustainable development through guiding land use change. Our national planning policy framework recognises that access to high-quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation make an important contribution to the health and wellbeing of communities. The framework provides guidance for planning authorities in preparation of their local plans. It is also a material consideration in the determination of planning applications for individual development proposals. It states that planning policy should be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of needs for open space, sports and recreation facilities, and opportunities for new provision:

“Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless: an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings or land to be surplus to requirements; or the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the needs for which clearly outweigh the loss.”

Existing open space sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown that the open space, building and land is surplus to requirements; unless the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent, or better, provision, in terms of quality or quantity, in a suitable location; or unless the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the needs for which clearly outweigh the loss. The importance of a robust evidence base is crucial to good planning and the achievement of sustainable development. We recognise the importance of open spaces, including playing fields, to communities—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 11 March.