The Natural v Artificial grass debate has again raised its head following a recent press release by the FA, highlighted by the BBC, stating that; "The Football Association has allowed the use of 3G artificial pitches in every round of the FA Cup from 2014-15. Synthetic pitches cannot be used after the first round proper under the FA's current rules. The decision to allow 3G ("third generation") surfaces from next season will be welcomed by clubs who rely on their more sustainable running costs."
"Clubs are increasingly seeing the benefits of using 3G surfaces across the football pyramid and clubs who play on those surfaces can now retain home advantage in the competition," FA General Secretary, Alex Horne, said. "These pitches are a very useful asset and capable of delivering 50-plus hours per week as compared to a natural turf pitch, which can deliver perhaps five hours per week."
"The value of 3G pitches has been clearly demonstrated during the recent wet weather where leagues within the grassroots game have migrated to them to address fixture backlogs."
Plastic pitches were banned from English professional football in 1995 after four clubs - QPR, Luton Town, Oldham Athletic and Preston North End - tried them during the 1980s.
They are currently commonplace in Europe and the possibility of their reintroduction in England has been raised recently by reformed Maidstone United's success on a 3G pitch in the Ryman League Premier.
Maidstone are third in the division, but their pitch would be banned if they win promotion after Conference clubs voted against the reintroduction of artificial surfaces.
Minister for Sport and Tourism, Helen Grant, member of Parliament for Maidstone and The Weald, welcomed the FA's decision, adding that she is lobbying the Conference to change its rules on 3G pitches.
"It's not just Maidstone United that might benefit from such a move," she said. "Smaller clubs up and down the country that already use these pitches would receive a boost, and I want to see more of them across our communities."
"I have held initial discussions with the football authorities to consider a change of the rules and will have further meetings over the coming weeks." http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/26717348
It was only a few months ago [January] that the Football Conference voted on banning artificial pitches following an Extraordinary General Meeting in Telford . A Conference statement said: "The vote by the member clubs in compliance with competition regulations saw the proposal defeated by 21 votes to 11 votes. This means for the 2014-15 season only natural grass turf surfaces will be permitted in all three divisions of the Conference."
Artificial pitches are commonplace on the continent, with the top flight of Italian, Russian and Dutch football all hosting games on them.
Rugby union sides Saracens, at their new Allianz Park home, and Cardiff Blues, at the old Arms Park, have both installed artificial surfaces.
But, with memories of the bouncy plastic pitches of the 1980s still fresh, Football League clubs last voted against artificial pitches three years ago http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/25953774
How confusing is this? We seem to have two schools of thought on the use of artificial pitches and whether they should take the place of natural grass pitches.
Well, I for one am against artificial pitches being used for competitive matches. In my opinion, they will never replicate the qualities of a natural grass pitch in terms of playability, traction, presentation or value for money.
Having played and worked on both natural and artificial surfaces, I have always found natural grass pitches to be more flexible, enjoyable and comfortable to play on. So, why have these artificial pitches stolen a march on natural grass pitches in recent years?
New systems, shock pads and installation methods, supported by a large chunk of Sports Governing Bodies' monies, has encouraged the development of these facilities. Don't get me wrong, they have their place, and they certainly bear no resemblance to the product of the 1980s and provide a decent surface to play and train on. And, yes, they are able to accommodate back to back and heavy usage, with many clubs seeing 60 plus hours of use a week.
For a number of years we have seen International sport being played on artificial surfaces successfully, namely Hockey, Athletics and Tennis. I am aware of the popularity of these new third / fourth generation pitches and the fact that they do offer schools and communities a flexible facility that caters for a number of different activities.
My concerns are centred on the fact we are seeing more investment in these artificial pitches than investing in existing natural grass pitches, plus the fact that these artificial systems are considerably more expensive to maintain over time.
A typical high specified 3G pitch that has been approved for international standard play (FIFA 2 star grade) will cost the best part of £700k for full construction and installation. They also have to pass a stringent testing certificates each year , ensuring that they are fit for play; the ongoing costs of the testing and maintenance costs for these pitches is not cheap. Nor is the capital costs of buying specialist machinery to maintain them, or the labour time required for their ongoing upkeep.
A number of UK groundsmen up and down the country who have these type of pitches are spending between £10,000 -£ 20,000 on brushing them and keeping them clean and carrying out specialist deep pile cleaning operations. The myth that they are maintenance free and weather proof are far from the truth; these pitches are still affected by the weather.
Even the less hi-spec artificial pitch systems will still set you back anything between £400-£600K to install, yes they may offer you 60 hours a week usage, but again this brings with it a lot of issues, you still need people to manage the pitches, taking the bookings, marketing the facility, even the cost of hiring has come down, with so many pitches coming on line in the community, I doubt whether there's any pitch in the country paid for itself via its hire charges.
Then we have to consider other problems that may occur. Many companies are stating that these artificial pitches will last ten years and more, however in reality most will be lucky to last 6 or7 years.
This because they are either being overused, not being maintained properly or there is a problem with the carpet, or there may have been a poor installation resulting in surface problems, such as seams coming undone or inlaid lines stretching and damage caused by undertaking the wrong maintenance programme.
In fact, there is possibly more to go wrong with an artificial pitch than a natural grass pitch.
There a case on the following link where an artificial pitch failed within three years of being installed - http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/03/portland_timbers_and_city_rene.html - with the club having to find substantial funding to replace the surface.
So if, for some reason, the lifespan of your pitc h has been shortened, you are then looking at the replacement costs of a new top - another £150K of investment - coupled with the cost of getting rid of your old surface, with specialist contractors charging anything between £20-25K to dispose of it properly .
So, all in all, the typical capital costs and maintenance costs for a modern 3G pitch over a ten year period will be near the one million pound mark; a significant investment for a single pitch facility.
Imagine what could be achieved if we invested £1m on existing grass pitches. Even taking into account their annual maintenance costs (6-14k), end of season renovations (£6K), materials and the contractual labour, you would be looking to spend between £12 -20K per pitch per year.
Over ten years, that would equate to £200k, giving you a total capacity of five natural grass pitches to operate over ten years.
I would suggest that grass pitches are more sustainable than artificial ones over time. Also, we've still not covered any of the medical issues associated with playing on artificial pitches. I have seen plenty of burns and grazes caused by these pitches, not to mention the potential harm from bacterial infections resulting from surface contaminates accumulating on them.
It would be a pity to see our national sports reduced to playing on artificial surfaces when we already have plenty of evidence of clubs investing properly in the provision of natural grass pitches.
I am sure that, if many of our league and conference clubs had invested properly in their own natural grass pitches, spending the correct amount of money and employing a trained groundsperson, we would not be having this debate.
In 2006, the European Seed Association (ESA ) conducted a study - Why Choose Natural Grass? - in which it looked at the benefits of natural grass pitches opposed to artificial grass pitches.
In their report, they quote there is plenty of evidence why natural grass pitches are better for the environment and for the end users.
"it's extremely healthy and safe for players, the most cost-effective alternative to install and maintain, and the majority of football players and even spectators prefer it. According to scientists, our climate is changing rapidly and this has major consequences for flora and fauna - and for human health in particular. Air pollution is everywhere. To help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, world conferences are regularly organised to encourage countries to stop this fatal process.
In this framework, natural grass can be a great help. Unfortunately, not many people are aware of this fact and have overlooked the positive contribution of oxygen production and carbon dioxide fixation natural grass brings. People are understandably more concerned about the loss of one hectare of rain forest than one hectare of grass. Although both are very important, it is an interesting fact that the annual oxygen production and carbon dioxide fixation from one hectare of grass exceeds that of one hectare of forest!
Grass has so much more to offer In addition to its positive environmental characteristics, natural grass is a safe product to play on. It absorbs heat from sun on the pitch, the risk of injury is very low, it's cheap and, last but not least, it's self-repairing. Natural turf contains many different bacteria which take care of pitch sanitation and 'clean up' human body fluids (sweat, spit, vomit, blood, urine etc) animal excreta, and algae. Some artificial turf manufacturers promote the absence of bacteria as a positive attribute. But how extensively are pitch sanitation products used and how effective are they?".
In many competitive overviews by artificial turf manufacturers, the maintenance costs for naturalturf pitches are calculated at too high a level. An amount of 5,000 to 15,000 euros (£3,000 to £10,000) is a realistic figure. The costs for natural grass pitches depend a lot on the intensity of use and also on the skill of the groundsman. Due to the introduction of improved grass varieties and new species, it is now possible to make significant savings in the maintenance costs of natural grass pitches. For artificial pitches, the annual maintenance cost also falls between 5,000 and 15,000 euros (£3,000 to £10,000) per field per year.
In terms of costs, their (ESA) findings were very similar to mine that, over time, the cost of maintaining an artificial far outweighs the costs of managing a natural grass pitch, but without the hidden problems of the environmental costs of getting rid of a plastic pitch?
It will be interesting to see how this debate unfolds; we have seen a large number of these artificial pitches being installed in both schools and local communities in recent years. It will be interesting to see how these local authorities and schools cope when they are faced with a replacement cost in six or seven year time. Will they have the money or will it be a case of seeing these pitches decline into a state where they lose the support of the end user?
Time will tell. For me, I just hope there will be some natural grass pitches left for the next generation of sportsmen and women to play competitive sport on. Part of the recent Olympic legacy was to encourage participation in sport. Playing on a piece of plastic with a cage around it is not what I call inspiring. If only the Government recognised what could be achieved if they where to invest in natural grass pitches instead of artificial pitches.
This situation is also not being helped by the further cuts in funding announced by Sport England, who announced recently that the Football Association is to lose £1.6m of public funding for the amateur game in England after failing to reverse a sharp decline in the number of people regularly playing the sport. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/26760067
A total of £2.8 million of funding has been withdrawn from the Football Association, England Golf Partnership, England Netball, England Hockey, British Mountaineering Council and British Rowing, all of which have seen the number of people who play their sport fall.
"I want these decisions to send a clear message to those NGBs who need to change, said Jennie Price, Sport England Chief Executive.
"This year, we are removing up to 10 per cent of their future investment, and we will be working with them to improve their plans. I want to reassure people who play those sports that they won't lose out - we will still fund them, but through other bodies, such as local authorities or charities."
Around half of Sport England's total funding is invested in 46 NGBs to grow their sport. Under the Payment for Results process, their performance is reviewed annually to ensure they are delivering results and value for the public money they receive.
Sport England, the body responsible for distributing public money to increase sports participation, says the reduction is a clear message that football needs to change its grassroots strategy.
So what has caused this steep decline in the quality of our grass pitches? For me, it has been years of neglect in terms of ensuring playing pitches get the appropriate level of maintenance.
When I began my career in this industry most, if not all, parks departments were geared up and invested money in their parks and recreation grounds and schools. They had the skills, equipment and resources to ensure their parks pitches remained playable and accessible. Yes, in most cases, we are talking about subsidised sport.
That was what councils were about, providing services; however, the combination of compulsory competitive tendering, changes in management structures and placing a cost on services meant that priorities changed. Over time, budgets for grounds maintenance have been slashed, resulting in a decline in essential work being carried out; at most, you are lucky to get your grass cut on fortnightly basis, marked out occasionally and perhaps some token end of season renovation work carried out .
Needless to say, we are now seeing pitches in such a poor state that teams are hanging up their boots and leaving the sport.
Also, the FA have not helped themselves. Over many years, they have failed to deliver the right type of funding, resources and support for grassroots sports clubs in respect of understanding the issues of maintaining and sustaining grass pitches. Education and training at grassroots level is the key, followed by funding to provide essential machinery for maintenance of the pitches.
The sports turf industry is more than capable of producing better pitches, we have the skills, experience and equipment - all we need is a coherent strategy and the will to commit to it.
I am a natural grass man and I would like to see investment in natural grass pitches. Primary and Junior schools would be my priority targets. Providing well presented, natural grass facilities in these schools, backed up by a clear coaching curriculum, would help solve the child health problems associated with the lack of adequate sporting facilities, and perhaps increase sport participation.
Let's hope that this debate encourages more natural grass pitches to be used in this country. We have some of the best playing fields in the world, our temperate climate is ideal for growing grass, so why install plastic when we have, for hundreds of years, enjoyed playing on natural grass?