School fields face new threat from developers

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The Independent Online

Schools are being bombarded with offers from developers to buy their playing fields, despite a Government pledge to put a stop to the practice.

There are expected to be about 945 applications to build on school playing fields this year, up from 590 in 1999 and 2000. The number of successful applications has also risen by 60 per cent, in spite of the Government's promise to save school sports grounds.

Earlier this month, a leaked Whitehall report showed that 446 fields had been sold in 2000 and 2001, compared to 279 the previous year.

The former England football player Trevor Brooking, who now chairs Sport England, a group which must be consulted on proposed sales, has called for planning rules to be tightened to protect school land, warning that the growing trend threatens to create a generation of obese young people.

And Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, has called for a moratorium on all such sales.

The figures have led to accusations that Tony Blair has reneged on the promise he made in a 1999 speech to stop the practice, which Labour said was a Tory policy.

Although there are no official statistics for sales before 1998, it is believed that about 5,000 sports fields were sold to developers under the Tories between 1981 and 1997.

The National Playing Fields Association described the figures as "horrendous", and headteachers' leaders warned schools to think of the long term when considering selling their land. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "This is something we should be very concerned about. Once a playing field is sold, it is gone forever. The benefit does not always come back to the school and often disappears into the local authority budget."

The revelation of the huge increase has led Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, to announce that she plans to change the way such sales are estimated. Ms Morris argues that the statistics can present a distorted picture, because some playing fields are no longer used by schools even before they are sold.

In the meantime, parents and community groups around the country are battling to save their local sports grounds from developers. Last week it emerged that Hackney council plans to sell the playing fields of the former Hackney Downs school, which was closedin 1995. A new £20m City Academy is planned for the site, but the council argues that the fields, which were bought for the school in the 19th century, were last used by it in the "mid-1980s".

A spokeswoman for Sport England, which is consulted on all potential sales of larger areas of land, welcomed new planning guidance that will increase the scrutiny of bids for smaller facilities, saying it would make "the holes in the net more difficult to get through". But the group has no powers to veto a sale and can only pass on its disapproval to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions which makes the final decision, she said.

Mr Brooking said: "Open space, and the framework to protect and develop it, is vitally important. We remain concerned that there is a risk that sport will be dropped from the first team to the reserves unless the value of sport is robustly and appropriately recognised in the planning guidance.

"We must ensure sport does not slip down the agenda. The government has stated that sport is important at every level of government. This must include planning."