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Playing Fields

Volume 828: debated on Monday 13 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decreasing numbers of accessible and affordable playing fields.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name, and refer to my entry in the register regarding my position as honorary president of the London Playing Fields Foundation.

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that every community has the facilities it needs so that sport and physical activity are accessible to all. We are investing £300 million in developing thousands of state-of-the-art community football pitches and multiuse sports facilities across the UK. We have committed £30 million a year for three years to school sport facilities in England, and over £20 million with the Lawn Tennis Association to renovate park tennis courts across England, Scotland and Wales.

I thank the Minister. That all sounds very good, but does he agree that playing fields are more than just green spaces and can help to improve people’s lives physically, mentally and indeed socially? Unfortunately, the temptation at the moment is for councils to get capital receipts from selling off playing fields for more desperately needed housing. That is happening now all over the country. Will the Government accept that real protection will come only when local councils have a specific statutory responsibility for sport and leisure, including playing fields?

I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that sport facilities are important, not just to people’s physical health but to their mental health and well-being. That is why we are investing the sums that we are—£300 million—in ensuring that communities across the UK have them in their areas. At least 50% of the funding will go to the most deprived areas across the United Kingdom, and we work closely with local communities, including local authorities, in ensuring that the provision is there.

I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will be aware that in many areas there are privately owned sports facilities, either private clubs or sometimes public schools. What are the Government doing to encourage those privately owned sport facilities and playing fields to be shared more widely with people in the community?

We applaud those schools that make their facilities open to the community, and our Opening Schools Facilities programme is providing up to £57 million to allow selected schools across England to keep their facilities open for longer for after-school activities. That is targeted especially at girls, disadvantaged children and people with special educational needs. We want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to take part in sport and physical activity.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of Vauxhall Motors Football Club, where 40,000 children from the age of five play in only one football season. It has been very difficult to watch so many council and school playing fields be sold off so that they can pay their bills, for whatever reason. I suggest to the Minister one or two things that could be done. First, we need to talk to Sport England to stop it objecting to all-weather pitches being laid because of its mental blockage about saying that they must be grass. Secondly, does he agree that the Football Foundation and the Premier League should put even more money into grass-roots football for 4G pitches, so that communities like mine can really enjoy football or rugby throughout the whole of the year?

In the context of the fan-led review, we have talked through wanting to see funding flow more equitably throughout the football pyramid, and the work that we have taken forward in the White Paper will follow that up. On the question of grass or artificial sports facilities, £43 million of the £300 million I mentioned has already been delivered, which will improve 177 facilities across the UK including 80 artificial-grass pitches and over 20 grass-pitch improvements, so we are looking after pitches of all types.

The Minister says that the Government are improving the number of pitches and putting more money in. Do they have an idea of how many pitches and open spaces are required to get the best health benefits out of the exercise programme? If not, why not?

The programme is targeted and, as I say, at least 50% of the funding will go to the most deprived areas across the United Kingdom to make sure that we are inspiring people and giving them the facilities in the areas that they need. We work with a range of bodies to do that.

My Lords, I want to press the Minister a little further on the answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, particularly on public and private schools opening their facilities. Those schools have some of the very best sports facilities in the country, and the lack of access to good opportunities further exacerbates inequalities between those children from disadvantaged homes and those who are better off and able to afford an education at those schools. What is the department doing to press those schools to partner more effectively with their local communities?

We work through the Department for Education to encourage schools to make their facilities available to the wider community. Last week we announced a significant package of over £600 million to boost school sport in the state sector, including confirmation of funding for the PE and school sport premium and the School Games Organisers network until the end of summer term 2025, so we are making sure that we are working with state schools as well.

My Lords, Labour welcomes the fact that the Government have conceded to the Lionesses’ campaign for girls to have the right to play football in school. However, given the continued loss of playing fields, how will the Government ensure that playing fields are available for the next generation of both male and female footballers to get the start and the facilities that they deserve?

The £300 million which I mentioned is making sure that there are changing rooms, facilities, and new artificial and grass-pitch improvements; it is also being targeted toward smaller capital projects such as floodlights and equipment. We are making sure that we are targeting it at disadvantaged groups of people, as well as groups who are underrepresented in sport, which of course includes women and girls. I am delighted to say that the first of the stadia around the country that are being named after some of our victorious Lionesses has been announced: the Jill Scott pitch in Jarrow in Tyne and Wear.

What are the Government doing to discourage the sale of school playing fields without any provision for their replacement? I also applaud the Government for doing all that they can to encourage further partnerships between independent and maintained schools, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, referred. There are now many thousands of them and they are growing all the time.

We are working through the programmes that I have mentioned—the PE and school sport premium, the School Games Organisers network, and the Opening School Facilities programme—to encourage school sporting facilities to be made available to the widest possible group of people.

My Lords, the questions so far have focused quite significantly on football, and to a lesser extent on other sports that require to be played on playing fields. Could the Minister say a bit more about what the Government are doing to support swimming facilities, which have major health benefits, and are among the more expensive facilities to maintain, particularly for local authorities? Furthermore, how are the Government investing to make sure that they are not lost?

The noble Baroness is right to point to other sports. In regard to the £300 million I referred to, 40% of projects will support a sport other than football. We know that, like many organisations and businesses, swimming pools are hit particularly hard by the rising cost of energy. My right honourable friend the Sports Minister has had a number of discussions with the sector to hear about the impact of rising energy bills on swimming pools, which we are of course feeding into colleagues at His Majesty’s Treasury, particularly with a view to the Budget this week.

My Lords, notwithstanding the answers that the Minister gave to the noble Lords, Lords Lexden and Lord Kennedy, is he aware that in the last few years over 100 schools have been forced to sell off their playing fields, affecting something like 75,000 pupils? Does he not believe that more should be done to provide funds to schools so that they are not forced to sell off these valuable assets?

My Lords, in part, that falls to colleagues at the Department for Education, but the noble Lord is right to point to the importance of school facilities. Through the programmes that I have mentioned we have support for schools to make sure that facilities are shared with the wider community, which of course underlines their importance and gets more people using them. The investment that we are making in England reflects the need identified through local football facility plans, which ensure that we engage communities in the facilities that they need in their area.

My Lords, after the events of the weekend, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the key thing is that public access to playing fields and what goes on on them should be both direct and unimpeded, and need not be mediated through the views of opinionated and overpaid pundits?

My Lords, we work with a variety of people in sport to ensure that funding is available to those who need it, to inspire future generations of boys and girls to take part in whatever sport or physical activity they wish.

My Lords, the loss of these facilities is clearly unfortunate and, as has been said, there is an issue of mental health. Can the Minister explain to me why my mental health seems to have been affected by the rugby football match between France and England that has just taken place?

The noble Lord underlines the emotional journey that supporters go on when cheering on the teams in their preferred sport, but also the great delight that they bring to the many people who spectate.