New rules to curb school playing fields sell-offs

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TOUGH NEW guidelines to clamp down on local authorities planning to sell off school playing fields were published yesterday.

The guidelines mean councils will only be able to sell land proved to be surplus to requirements. Any proceeds from selling sports fields will also have to be ploughed back into sport or education before the deal is approved.

Charles Clarke, the junior schools minister, said the sale of playing fields had virtually been halted. But the new rules would ensure that any future sell-offs would only be allowed if it improved the standard of sports facilities.

Estimates suggest that 5,000 school playing fields have been sold during the past 10 years, mostly in deals with property developers.

Under legislation passed last year councils and schools have to gain Government permission before selling land. The new guidelines spell out the conditions which must be met for an application to be approved.

Mr Clarke, speaking at the launch of National School Grounds Week, said: "School playing fields are an invaluable resource and one to which this Government attaches the highest priority. As well as providing an outdoor classroom they add to local people's quality of life. Their loss has caused widespread concern.

"Before 1997 sports bodies said there were 40 disposals a month. Now we are receiving just a dozen applications a month, and they are often leading to new sports facilities or result from school closures.

"Where disposals do occur they often fund even better facilities such as sports halls or all-weather floodlit surfaces which enhance out of school hours community use and encourage more school use in the winter months. The new criteria will make LEAs and school governing bodies think twice before even proposing a playing field disposal."

On Friday David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, claimed schools were producing a "generation of unfit philistines" because of pressure on sports facilities and arts education.

A survey carried out by the association last year found 94 per cent of primary schools had no gym. More than 100 secondaries and 55 primaries had no access to a playground.

Yesterday John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "We were very unhappy with the loss of playing fields under the last government. It mortgages the sporting future of the nation."