0 Sporting legacy at Ashton Hayes - by Royal decree

Team GB's London Olympics triumphs seem a distant memory, but the mighty task of fulfilling our legacy commitments is the new baton to take up. Central to this Olympics pledge, which includes fostering greater sporting participation across the board, is the need to ensure future generations enjoy the same access to high quality recreation facilities as that of today's elite sportspeople.

The Fields in Trust Queen Elizabeth Fields Challenge was launched to honour 2012's landmark events - the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - in a bid to protect as many outdoor recreational spaces in perpetuity as a grassroots legacy.

At last November's inaugural awards ceremony, staged at Lords Cricket Ground, scene of the London 2012 archery, host John Inverdale presided over a celebration of the cream of the entrants.

Lifting the Most Improved Field crown was QEII Field Ashton Hayes in Cheshire and, aside from the giant steps taken by those steering the development, it's a rounded success that stretches far beyond sportsturf.

This concerns the efforts in transforming a farmer's fallow field into a first-class recreation site, providing the local community with a football pitch, play area, outdoor gym, orchard and nature area. The judging panel applauded the achievement, but the residents of this little village near Chester (with a population of just 1,000) have a history of going above and beyond for their community.

Fields in Trust was founded in 1925 and is the only national charity working to safeguard and improve outdoor recreational spaces. Currently, 1,506 sites have been nominated as part of the Challenge and over £3m has been secured in improvement funds for these sites.

Asda and the Asda Foundation are the principal partners of the Challenge, but others include SITA Trust, Sport England, London Victoria (insurance), The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, The London Marathon Charitable Trust, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Dundas & Wilson.

Ashton Hayes fought off strong competition from fellow shortlisted sites - Queen Elizabeth Park View Playing Fields in Fylde and Lordship Recreation Ground in Haringey, London.

The history of the community's desire to seek adequate green space predates the QEII initiative by some years, and it was through the hard work of committed residents that first set the wheels in motion to acquire the appropriate land.

"The idea of having another go at getting a recreation ground got a new lease of life when I became a Chester City Councillor in 2006," explains Andrew Garman, founder trustee and former chairman of the group that now runs QEII Field Ashton Hayes.

"I and other interested parties came together to look into the possibilities of acquiring land for recreation in the village," adds Andrew, who retired from the pharmaceutical industry to move into local politics.

"In the 1960s and 70s, the villages around the county town of Chester underwent rapid expansion, but there was little thought by town planners to build new areas for recreation," he explains.

Andrew later joined forces with other like-minded parents, when his children were still young, to construct a small play area in the village behind the church hall. It offered villagers minor provision, but didn't have any major impact, or solve the need for adequate green space for wider sport and recreation.

Once the decision was taken to progress seriously, the plan was to seek appropriate land. A local landowner was approached, who was sympathetic to the cause, and the trustees were able to acquire an option-to-buy agreement, which they could take up at a later date.

A time limit was set on the right to purchase and, in the end, it went to the wire - the team only managing to raise enough money a few days before the window of opportunity closed.

Ashton Hayes received a £25,000 grant from SITA Trust as part of their £1m Queen Elizabeth II Fields Fund, alongside other funding sources, acquired previously, which helped transform farmland into a prime recreational site.

The Liberal Democrat run Cheshire West and Chester Council (then Chester City Council) were pivotal in securing the land, committing £45,000 towards the cost of the purchase.

For the land purchase, Ashton Hayes Parish Council contributed £26,000, Section 106 funds of £6,534, local sources and fund raising was about £8,000. The balance of £22,000 came from various pots at Cheshire West and Chester council.

Due to the field's proximity to a landfill site, WREN gave £50,000 for playground provision, which has drawn a strong following since opening, including a healthy volume of passing traffic, due to the field's location near to a B road, which runs past the village. The imposing wooden cantilever swing can be seen from the road, drawing attention from passers-by.

One of the hurdles the trustees faced when applying for funding was that virtually all sources of funding available to them did not allow for the land purchase, which baffled both Andrew and the co-ordinating team.

"The grant that enabled us to meet the deadline came from the council's Rural Development Fund," says Andrew. "This source did not initially allow grants to be used for land purchase, but we were able to persuade them to have another look at this restriction. So many sources have this restriction and it is probably the biggest obstacle to communities buying land for recreation."

A total of 4.7 acres was eventually purchased and half an acre leased from the landowner, who wanted to keep a small amount back for himself. The 5.2 acres allowed not only for the construction of a full-size football pitch but also community recreation amenities, such as a nature area with new trees, a woodland sculpture, a perimeter walkway for visitors and plenty of open space.

Three teams currently play on the Ashton Hayes pitch at weekends, with each paying subs for the hire. "The pitch quality isn't bad," Andrew says, "but the question is, how long will it stay that way. After more than two years of play, we can still see the rows where the seed was sown. In hindsight, we should have left it to bed in for much longer than we did."

"That said, it's flat and drains well," he adds. "We're set on good loamy soil, so when the weather is bad we are often the only pitch in the area that still sees play. We planned in a 1 in 100 slope to the pitch so rainwater would drain away and not pool anywhere. So far, that's worked well."

Arguably though, the most captivating feature of the development is the strong environmental focus and local desire for carbon neutrality. The biggest capital spend of all was the clubhouse, which was rather fortuitously funded through another village pot.

Ashton Hayes had embarked on a carbon reduction programme of their own two years earlier, with the aim of moving towards carbon neutrality, a strategy that so far has brought about a 20% overall carbon reduction.

The Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral group was awarded a hefty £400,000 grant by the Department for Energy and Climate Change to put towards 'ground-breaking' environmental projects in the village.

The goalposts were moved, however, when the coalition government came to power in 2010 - putting a freeze on spending and placing on ice the committee's plans. When the block was finally lifted, the cash had to be spent quickly, Andrew recalls.

"We already had planning permission for a clubhouse, so when we were asked whether we'd like a carbon neutral clubhouse, we jumped at the opportunity."

From inception and design to construction, all works were completed in under five months, included men's and women's changing facilities, showers, toilets, a club room, kitchen and a garage equipped to power an electric car.

The south-facing, 10kW roof of solar panels was perhaps the most impressive aspect, and brings an important financial dimension, generating £3,000 annually. "The solar panels are owned and operated by a community-interest company which gives us the income from rent of the roofspace."

Hot water and heating is supplied through a ground source heat pump and the showers are designed to mix water with air to reduce consumption.

The electric car venture was the only facet of the build that hasn't been a roaring success, but due to no fault of anyone involved. The specially designed garage was built to house the Nissan Leaf, which was purchased for use by the whole village.

"It's probably fair to add that community interest in the electric car was less than expected, and a number of technical problems was the thing that prompted the Parish Council to sell it," Andrew explains.

The garage remains, though, and now sits on the official national grid for electric power points, so he is positive about its future. "A couple of residents now own electric cars, so it's well used."

"When we signed up for the scheme, the aim was just to protect the field and give residents a green space they could enjoy. It was, essentially, a farm field like any other."

"We've progressed from humble beginnings to the position we are in now and, for a village of only 1,000, we have some highly successful carbon reduction programmes in place. Our village school received much of the £400,000, which was used to install solar panels, and is now generating a healthy income."

The more that villages in the UK unite in pursuit of their own ambitions to create true community sports and recreational provision, the more that the Olympic legacy dream will come true.

How much of what Ashton Hayes has created has arisen from any highly focused target for purely sporting participation is debatable. What the initiative offers in spades, though, is the opportunity for local people to get involved in activities and pursuits previously unavailable to the local community, and that's surely how truly grassroots movements can create the legacy we hear about so often.

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