Threats and Sales of Playing Fields Compared

Don Earlyin Industry News
The NPFA is often asked about the record of recent Governments, both Labour and Conservative, in relation to playing field threats and losses. The typical punter wants to know, 'who's better' or 'who's worse'? Of course, MoD facilities apart, it is not the Government in Westminster or our other capital cities which is set to cash in.

Landowners are companies, local authorities, business houses, schools, charities and myriad others. So Central Government is not the devil incarnate when it comes to sales, but it is responsible for the legal and policy framework which makes it easier or harder to get rid of our facilities for outdoor sport and play. This article, focusing on England, looks at the position in recent years.

Statistics for applications for planning permission for development on playing fields have only been collected by Sport England on behalf of the Government since 1999/2000. The summary is:
  • 1999/2000 615
  • 2000/2001 875
  • 2001/2002 985
  • 2002/2003 1297
  • 2003/2004 1413
  • 2004/2005 1271
The statistics should be taken as a headline interpretation of pressure for development only, since they include some detrimental applications for built development such as housing or retail stores and some consents for facility improvements such as floodlights or changing facilities. The most recent decrease is very much welcomed but the latest figures still represent an increase of over 100% compared with 5 years previously. The South East, East Midlands and the Eastern regions are under greatest pressure. Prior to that time hard data was not collected.

DCMS also publishes information on approved applications. However, current Government policy allows a number of exceptions to the general presumption against development and there are occasions when the statutory consultee, Sport England, does not object, making the prospect and event of approval greater. Specifically, small parts of playing fields not suitable for pitch sports are at risk, improvements to indoor facilities are considered an acceptable outcome of a sold playing field and the use of PPG17 open space assessments is questionable in terms of identification of so-called 'surplus' playing fields. Policies need to be more robust.

Notwithstanding the above, it appears the case that the record of the current Government is a matter of some improvement over the previous Conservative administration. It is noteworthy that legislation protecting school playing fields was introduced in the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act and the accompanying guidance made more difficult to circumvent in 2004.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland, when Schools Minister, was on record as saying "Until 1998 there was no control over the sale of school playing fields and, therefore, statistics are incredibly difficult to ascertain. We have attempted to work out a guesstimate of what we believe to have been the case; it shows that probably approximately 30 to 40 playing fields a month were sold off. That compares to a current figure of approximately three a month. However, they are guesstimates, and I should not wish to be held responsible for those figures. We simply do not have the information."

Therefore, past statistics are not based on hard information. It is understood that they are based on approvals granted for disposals of what were then called grant-aided schools and extrapolated for all state funded schools in the country. This assumes, of course, that the propensity of all LEA funded schools to sell was the same as grant aided schools. The assumption may well be off mark.

Under the 1998 legislation, the Secretary of State has approved 245 cases referred to him/her by the independent School Playing Fields Advisory Panel in the 53 months between February 2002 and June 2006, an average of 5 a month. However, not all cases are referred to the Panel. DfES has powers to give general consents in specified cases. This will increase the land take for buildings from playing fields.

The NPFA also has concerns regarding planned reinvestment in new facilities arising out of playing field disposals. For 2004/2005 £387 reinvestment was planned for sport, £160m for outdoor and £227m for indoor, which means that £1.42 was to be spent on indoor for every £1 spent on outdoor. The NPFA takes issue with this. Indoor facilities are badly needed but should not be funded out of sales of outdoor, where we know that improved drainage and changing accommodation are urgently needed all over the country. We want the Secretary of State and the Minister for Sport to secure adequate funds for indoor and outdoor facilities, not to oversee a system which sees one suffer to fund the other.

In summary, the NPFA would say that the Conservative record in the 1980s and 1990s appears substantially worse than that of the current administration. This Government has strengthened guidelines for protecting school playing fields and that is to its credit. But there is still too much over-reliance on the planning system and protection through contract and covenant is needed urgently. There is no room for complacency.

A political spat about who was better and who was worse in the past does not help much. It is future actions and results that count, based on lessons learned from the past.

Don Earley
Deputy Chief Executive
024 76 426620
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