Sports stars back ban on sale of playing fields

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Senior British sports figures yesterday welcomed the Government's pledge to stop state schools and local authorities selling off playing fields.

As three government departments announced co- ordinated statutory measures to halt further sales, Tessa Sanderson, Olympic javelin thrower, and Roger Uttley, England's rugby union manager, spoke of the urgent need for more facilities if Britain hopes to breed the next generation of sports stars.

Regulations to be tabled to the School Standards and Framework Bill, which is at present before Parliament, will mean state schools will need the permission of the Secretary of State for Education before selling any more land. At the same time, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport intend to tighten planning controls. A new adjudication process will rule on local authority sales which are opposed by the English Sports Council.

The Government has also sent a clear message to LEAs "discouraging" them from selling any more before the proposals become law. The legislation at present before Parliament only affects schools in England but it is likely to be extended across Britain.

Over the past two decades, school playing fields have been sold off at an alarming rate as local authorities tried to raise money from surplus assets. More than 5,000 have been lost to private developers since 1981, and thousands more are under threat.

David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, said he was determined that all school pupils would have access to "proper sports facilities". He pledged to "ensure that those playing fields which schools and local communities need are not sold in the future".

Ms Sanderson said that yesterday's moves could establish the foundation for a new generation of potential British sports stars. "If the Government can stop the sale of playing fields, it is absolutely brilliant news. Now we can begin to start looking for the champions of the future, and give talented children a real outlet."

Ms Sanderson, who won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, recalled the key role which dedicated teachers had played in her sporting development, adding: "But all the help they gave me outside school hours would not have been possible if there had been no facilities available.

"A lot of this country's champions in track and field are now coming towards the end of their careers. We need to be looking to our grass roots. Government steps are long overdue to make sure that the playing fields are there for them to develop their potential."