"Allowing clubs to be turned over for development would deprive many older people of their only activity and would break up the social networks that build up around the sport"
JOHN WOODCOCK, MP FOR BARROW-IN-FURNESS
TODAY, more than ever, professional sport is big business, so much so that we are used to the crucial issues in our top sports adopting prime time billing on our TV screens.
It even raised a few eyebrows when the issue of social networking site, Twitter, and a top football star were mentioned in the House of Commons.
Yet, this latest football debacle has not been the only sport causing a stir in the corridors of power in Whitehall as, back in March, the spotlight firmly shone on perhaps the most unlikely of sports - bowls.
When Barrow-in-Furness MP, John Woodcock, took to the stand to fight for the rights of bowling clubs, not only in his constituency but also across the UK, little did he know that the issue would go on to garner such media attention.
In May, bowls was featured twice on the prime time BBC 1 programme, The One Show, first taking on lighter exploration of the sport and how it's governing body Bowls England were looking to entice younger players to the game whilst, on the second show, the focus lay with the issues raised by Mr Woodcock in the Commons.
On 10th May, The One Show presenters and Mr Woodcock met supporters and members of the Chapel Street Bowling Club in Albert Square - overlooked by the Victorian edifice of Manchester Town Hall - where the wily group of senior bowlers and club sponsor - First Step Finance - were staging a protest match.
A far cry from the traditional bowls setting of peace and pleasantries, Chapel Street's disgruntled members were on song to voice their anger over the proposals by Manchester City Council to close the club's crown green, as part of its cost-cutting exercise, to slash more than £80m off its budget under the Government's austerity measures.
The pensioner bowlers played for most of the day on the artificial green and invited the council to turn up to justify their decision on the cuts, and to react to claims by the club's members that cutting services like this were not only unnecessary but represented a case of the council simply picking soft targets that they expected the least resistance from.
"We've done a great deal of local research ourselves into the cost of annual work on a bowling green, and the quotes we've attained are nearly half those the council give"
ROY HOOPER, CHAPEL STREET BOWLS CLUB
Chapel Street Bowling Club, which is likely to either close or be amalgamated with nearby Greenbank Park, is not the only club facing the axe under Manchester City Council's proposed cuts.
The plans to save the estimated £7,000 a year that the council says it costs to maintain each surface will mean that either Fog Lane Park's green, or the two at Ladybarn Park in nearby Didsbury, will also be scrapped, along with Clayton Park and Delamere Park in Gorton, while Highbank Park and Didsbury Park are set to have one of their two pavilion buildings mothballed.
The council has also revealed that one of every two bowling greens in Brookdale Park, Newton Heath; Debdale and Delamere Parks in Gorton; Hollyhedge Park in Sharston; Didsbury Park; Platt Fields in Fallowfield; and Highbank Park will be turned into either playing areas or flower beds, which paints a bleak picture of a city that has, for generations, enjoyed a rich bowling heritage.
Whilst the protest proved a brave move by the club, and one claiming the support of John Woodcock, conspicuous by their absence were council representatives who steadfastly stayed away, offering no comment on or reaction to the bowlers' pleas. Instead, the club has been challenged to suggest a series of solutions to the council, which it will consider. A date of 5 June was set as the deadline for those proposals to reach the council.
Since the protest, Manchester City Council have offered this statement by Councillor Mike Amesbury, Executive Member for Culture and Leisure; "We are working to maintain the best possible public access to bowling greens within the constraints of our reduced budget. We have brought forward proposals to provide facilities for bowling clubs in a more efficient and sustainable way. These are only proposals at the moment and consultation continues. In most cases there will be little or no change to existing provision."
Yet, the future of Chapel Street's crown green remains in doubt. The resolute stance of the members has sought to raise the issues of a sport that seems in mortal danger of dying out across swathes of the UK, due largely to the double whammy of running costs and dwindling member numbers.
This begs the question whether it is a viable sport in such testing economic times, taking into account the high levels of maintenance needed to achieve the standard of surfaces it demands.
Running in parallel with the maintenance quandary are the financial constraints and concerns over shrinking support. Numbers continue to fall, even in the south, in one of the hot spots for bowls, Worthing (see Pitchcare April/May 2011 p18-23) due, in part, to natural wastage and the changing demographic in the nation's urban bowls venues.
Alistair Hollis, of Bowls England, admits that there is a "huge task" facing clubs, and why the primary role of the sport's governing body is to "increase membership and keep the sport sustainable".
The average price of annual membership is around £70 which, he says, "keeps the game affordable" yet, if particularly parks clubs like Chapel Street are to remain, there needs to be more people fighting their corner.
Bowls Scotland is attempting to increase participation through its Scottish Young Bowlers Association initiative, which aims to raise the popularity of the game amongst a different age category. Yet, the best strategy for survival in these times may well be to ensure you have influential people 'bowling' for you, which is why Chapel Street could even now stand a fighting chance of staying alive.
John Woodcock became involved with the plight of the sport last summer after meeting with bowlers in Walney, Barrow in Furness, who were concerned that seven greens had fallen victim to development since 1994, and more were under threat as the owners of cash-strapped pubs and clubs looked for ways of generating extra funds.
After a period of research into the issue, John Woodcock tabled a bill in the Commons on the 28 March aimed at making it easier for bowlers to stop their greens being sold off for development.
His measures seek to halt the rising tide of greens being disposed of across his constituency and the UK alike. "Bowling clubs are vital community hubs across the country, but more and more are at risk of being sold off for development," explains Mr Woodcock, who played the sport as a junior in his home city of Sheffield.
"Allowing clubs to be turned over for development would deprive many older people of their only activity and would break up the social networks that build up around the sport," he adds.
The proposed bill, which enjoys cross-party support, would also introduce a 'community right to buy' for bowling greens, allowing people to club together and form co-operatives to purchase the greens for themselves and maintain them as community assets.
It is this level of flexibility that the bowlers of Chapel Street want applied to them, instead of simply closing the venue and allowing the sale of the council-owned plot.
With precious little financial support in recent years, the club has had to undertake much of the running repairs and upgrading itself, particularly on the 'tea hut', which members managed to have completed for nothing. Such initiatives have helped keep the club operational so far, but Chapel Street is clearly sunk without its crown green.
"It's really disappointing that the council cuts will target the most vulnerable in the community," says 80-year-old Muriel Hill, a lifelong member of Chapel Street, which has some twenty-five members and runs two teams. "People like me rely on the club, not only for our only source of exercise but also as a place to meet and socialise."
Whilst her comments typify the sentiments felt by all the bowlers, Chapel Street has been galvanised into action largely by the efforts of club secretary, Roy Hooper, and treasurer, Hilda Uren.
Both have proven instrumental in organising protests to the council and in raising awareness of just how desperate the position is. Yet, since the change of Government, they believe their words have often fallen on deaf ears amongst those in power in the council. "We'd had strong support from Liberal Democrat councillors but, since the local elections, we've lost most of these and, subsequently, the backing we had has fallen away," adds Muriel, who holds special warmth for the club, as it serves as a memorial to her late husband, George.
The root of the council's cuts to bowls lies in the annual costs associated with maintaining a crown green surface, which it estimates to be around £7,000 for the green and a further £5,000 to cover the cost of electricity for the tea hut.
Both estimates have left members baffled and they believe the council has simply got its sums wrong. "We've done a great deal of local research ourselves into the cost of annual work on a bowling green, and the quotes we've attained are nearly half those the council give," Roy insists.
"As far as the electricity is concerned, the council is again way off the mark, with the actual figure for our usage having been quoted at around £400 a year."
The club believes passionately that they have done all they can to make improvements and cut running costs, but insist members have been met with a less than positive attitude from the town hall.
"Four years ago, we were told by Manchester City Council that the much needed work on our tea hut would be completed due to safety concerns, but nothing came of it, even at a time when council budgets were healthy," Hilda recalls.
"Now, four years on, the work has been done, but not by the council. We decided to seek out help ourselves."
Both Hilda and Roy managed to get all the repairs and redecoration done on the tea hut and had the electrics fixed, free of charge, by seeking local help. "A Levenshulme GP found us help from some lads completing community service," reveals Roy. "Once they'd finished the exterior, they came back to start on some interior work and make right a poor job that had been done previously by a council parks contractor."
With such severe cuts to local provision on a national scale, many are starting to believe that the heart of the community is being destroyed, but Chapel Street Bowling Club has not gone yet, and there are those who are fighting the proposals tooth and nail alongside the members to keep the club alive.
Chapel Street's new sponsor, Stockport-based First Step Finance, has been busy taking the cause to the media, standing shoulder to shoulder with Roy, and Hilda and other members in their live protest in Albert Square.
When I arranged to meet Roy and Hilda in Chapel Street, the company's head of public relations, Helen Spivey, travelled from Leeds to meet me on site, and her indignation at the way she believes the council is treating the club is palpable.
"We recognise the importance of preserving community life," she says, "particularly one with over 100 years' history, and something that pensioners take comfort, joy and companionship in. Not everything is about money. As a community-focused business, our support goes beyond just sponsorship - First Step Finance pay for club tee-shirts, are providing a new trophy as well as cash. We want to be involved and contribute to local issues and are encouraging local companies and the public to support the Chapel Street bowlers.
"We would like to see Manchester City Council reconsider its decision, which we feel will have a truly detrimental affect on the members, who rely heavily on what the club offers them."
Another fierce local advocate of the club is The Blue Bell Inn, which sits in front of the green, and has proved to be one of Chapel Street's biggest supporters. Following a mission to Manchester brewer, Holt's, who own and run the pub, Mark Dunn, The Blue Bell's enthusiastic manager, reports that the brewery has pledged to save the green from destruction, but with one key proviso - that members seek the money for its upkeep from elsewhere.
Mark has proven pulling power when it comes to saving leisure resources - he spearheaded a successful protest last year to save the 80-year-old swimming baths across the road from closure.
Whilst he cannot promise to deliver similar success for Chapel Street Bowling Club, he is mobilising the forces to mount a defence of what he believes is a "bastion of Britishness". Pubs and bowling have been bedfellows, especially in the north of England, for longer than most can remember and, in some ways, their respective futures are entwined.
As Hilda notes: "They have plenty of bowlers in Barrow-in-Furness, but the pubs are closing and putting the bowling greens in peril."
I refer to the success of some bowls sites I know of in and around Stockport, to which Hilda retorts: "Stockport looks after its bowling greens better than Manchester."
Whether true or not, her comments do reflect the wildly varying state of bowls in the region and, probably, nationally.
Parks bowling clubs, such as Chapel Street, pay councils a proportion of their membership income and, although their greens are maintained by the authority, have precious little revenue to survive on.
She had earlier referred to the "injustice" of private bowling clubs based in Heaton Park, north of Manchester, utilising four flat greens that had been developed for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. "The council is spending money maintaining greens and subsidising private bowling clubs such as Heaton Hall Bowling Club, Bury Croquet Club and the Commonwealth Bowling Club, who use the greens. This seems unfair, when a parks club green, such as ours, is facing closure."
If the green does close, Chapel Street will be forced to hire from local private clubs runs by, amongst others, the British Legion. Hiring out greens can cost "hundreds of pounds a year", Hilda adds, a price that parks clubs can ill afford.
I decided to visit several of the sites that Hilda had referred to - bowlers tend to know what's going on in and around their 'patch' - and it was with a mixture of sadness and delight that I photographed park and pub greens later in the day.
Hilda's comment that "Stockport looks after its bowling greens better than Manchester" needed further investigation, I felt.
Fog Lane Park bowling green, home to two local teams, showed all the signs of being maintained, but the gate in the high steel perimeter railings was padlocked and the pavilion shut too.
As Hilda had said, it seemed wasteful for a maintenance team to be keeping the green in good order while depriving bowlers of their sporting joy.
Fog Lane Park was once replete with annual bedding plants. Now, those beds are filled mostly with weeds, with some perennial plantings sprouting up among them. Far more of the open grassed areas are being left untended. The mowers had left their mark round the edges - perhaps a 3m wide cut at best.
On to another site under the control of Manchester City Council - Fletcher Moss, Green Flag Award winner over a number of years. Once home to a glasshouse full of orchids, this park, walkland and ornamental garden is still a treasure, with its line of natural grass tennis courts marked out for play, and shale counterparts still in working order.
Site of the fledgling Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Fletcher Moss is a haven of peace although, here too, the perfection of its annual plantings and alpine varieties is looking a little ragged at the edges as the pressures of maintaining the site to such high standards mount, and the evolution into more sustainable, 'green' management practices progresses.
The crown green is no more though. It closed some years ago, to be replaced by an attractive scheme that includes perennial plantings and a four-way arbour, partly covered with trailing climbers. Walking across the lawn, the quality of the fine turf still shines through. The bowls team, who were based there, hires a green from the Didsbury Hotel next door.
Crossing 'the great divide' into Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council's area of responsibility, I pop into Heaton Moor to check a couple of their parks.
Once boasting two bowling greens, Heaton Moor Park now has only one, although I understand that it's well patronised. With typical Northern friendliness, a passer-by walking his dog sees me taking a photograph of the green, stops and says: "I've played bowls here for forty years as my father did before me. It's a very precise sport but an extremely satisfying one. The problem here though is the vandalism. Kids ride their bikes over the green and it can cause real damage."
The characterful setting has been retained, with the original brick pavilion still standing, in keeping with much of the district's Victorian residential style.
On the other side of the park, I view the old green, with its unusual free-form edging and banked verge. A dirt track has formed round the perimeter, perhaps the tell-tale trails of those bikes the passer-by bemoaned.
Stockport is known for its innovative leisure policy. Heaton Moor once boasted, arguably, the first sand-filled synthetic grass tennis court in Britain, installed some thirty years ago. It, and the other two courts, have been replaced by just one hard court, lined by a high fence and looking suitably vandal-resistant.
A five-minute drive away, Thornfield Park blends tradition and modernity. The crown green is in peak condition, and it needs to be, because no fewer than five bowling clubs use it as their base. The subject of continual improvements over the years, the green is surrounded by sturdy railings and includes a modern brick pavilion/groundsman's hut, modelled on the surrounding housing style. Overlooking it rather proudly, and the focus of a hard landscaping project all of its own, is a Green Flag wafting on top of its impressively tall pole.
Noticing that the pavilion door is ajar, I knock and am greeted by the groundsman, who tells me that this green too was blighted by vandalism until the fence was erected. His estimate of the annual cost of green maintenance tallies with that at Chapel Street, although I'm not sure that Hilda, Roy and their playing colleagues would want to be put through more torture by gazing on this fine example of a green in its prime.
Another five minutes away by car, tucked away down a cobbled side street, The Nursery Inn, voted Pub of the Year nationally in 2001, still thrives under the management of Manchester brewery, Hydes.
Nearly four years ago, I visited the pub, and its beautifully manicured crown green behind it, for a Pitchcare report, and was glad to note that it is still the bustling community hub it was then - one of the few bowling greens blessed with floodlights.
How starkly this scene of urban community health contrasts with the vision of The Bowling Green pub, sited on one of the main roads into Manchester city centre and squeezed between a hospital at its rear and university buildings in front.
The name says much about the relationship between the pub as a social centre and the bowling green as the sport of preference so intricately associated with it. This pub's green closed many years ago, replaced by a car park and urban infrastructure. But, the pub itself is boarded up now too, so any sign that a national sport was once played in its grounds may disappear.
Chapel Street Bowling Club need to recognise, urgently, is that the weight of expectancy falls on them to haul themselves out of the quagmire they find themselves in. A reliance on councils could prove fatal.
The future of bowls may be secured by more than single saviour - Government funding, community/volunteer management and supportive breweries - but, what the likes of Chapel Street Bowling Club need to recognise, urgently, is that the weight of expectancy falls on them to haul themselves out of the quagmire they find themselves in. A reliance on councils could prove fatal.
Traditional sport may indeed suffer as the dynamic of local communities evolves - perhaps a rising migrant population might not have the desire to invest time and effort in bowls - but the governing body's efforts to attract younger people can only be to the good surely, and the more it is seen to be doing that by Sport England, the more that funding is likely to flow through from central coffers.
But ill-feeling over green closure threats runs deep. As Hilda notes poignantly in a recent letter to the Manchester Evening News: "Always remember, the measure of a good society is how it looks after the weakest; the young, the old and the poor. Manchester is obviously not a good society."
Images © BBC and Speed Media One