Different schools of thought as Hoey and Caborn square off

Sports ministers past and present are at odds over playing-field numbers
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The Independent Online

As punch-ups go, it was in the same league as the fiery spat between Graeme Souness and Dwight Yorke, and, like the Blackburn bruisers, the combatants were on the same side. Supposedly.

True, the exchanges were verbal rather than physical, but between them Richard Caborn and his predecessor as Sports Minister, Kate Hoey, scrapped with a hostility at least as combustible as anything likely to be produced in the ring by Harrison and Hersisia at Wembley last night.

It was the vexed subject of school playing fields which had them at each other's throat. Since her own ministerial days Hoey has campaigned vigorously against the selling off of outdoor pitches, something the Government pledged to end, but she has become incensed that a monitoring group she set up to super-vise the situation apparently has been sidelined by Caborn.

Moreover she refuses to accept figures which suggest most school and community playing fields which are still being disposed of have been transformed into new-age, all-purpose artificial surfaces with improved facilities. According to Hoey there are lies, damned lies and playing-fields statistics.

Caborn came out counterpunching in a heated radio debate on Tuesday which seems to have resolved little. It remains a complex, confusing issue. Is the Government really playing a straight bat over playing fields or have they brought on the spinners? Last week they announced that of the 1,297 planning applications received for the development of playing fields in 2002-03, 807 were approved, 148 were rejected and 342 had yet to be decided. They claimed that of the approved applications more than half will lead to better sporting facilities such as swimming pools, Astroturf pitches and new changing-rooms.

But members of the committee set up by Hoey - comprising representatives of Sport England, the CCPR, the National Playing Fields Association and a number of government depart-ments - who have met only twice since May last year, claim that not only have they been bypassed, but there has been a 25 per cent increase in the sale of playing fields. Caborn admits that he is not a particular advocate of the group, not because it was Hoey's brainchild but because, he alleges, it has leaked information and does not monitor every application, though he says he would not be averse to them getting together again.

Nothing raises his hackles more than suggestions that the Government are telling porkies. As he flew to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday - wearing his other hat as Minister for Tourism - he was keen to keep fighting his corner, saying: "Since I came into this job there have been huge amounts of money put into sports facilities for young people.

"But what is becoming more and more evident now is that while it is important to keep the playing field as a playing field, the trend is for complexes with synthetic pitches which can be used for football, rugby and hockey alongside other surfaces where sports like basketball, netball and tennis can be played. If you switch to this sort of arrangement it is technically the closure of a playing field, but we have got ourselves tied up with such a narrow definition.

"The kids think these new surfaces are fantastic because they can go out there and play sport at almost any time of the day or night without having to clear up loads of dog muck before they start. I believe most kids, particularly inner-city kids, would much rather have a fenced-off pitch with floodlights, and not be ankle-deep in mud. What we are doing is responding to the needs of young people.

"Yes, the number of planning applications to build on playing fields has gone up, but many of these are for reconfiguration of facilities, to build new surfaces, indoor sports halls and new pavilions, which themselves have to receive planning permission. It is a far cry from wanting to put up another Tescos. But I agree it is bloody confusing because to a large extent it is about terminology.

"Yes, they are different facilities to some of the old playing fields, but life moves on. If I continued to be driven by what I think is old criteria, I wouldn't be doing the kids justice." Caborn believes Hoey and the NPFA are living in the past, "slightly out of sync with reality", or as the organisation's director, Elsa Davies, puts it: "He seems to think we are a lot of old fogies going around in woolly hats and jumpers. But whatever new facilities are being built, this is still about recreational space. Youngsters still need land where they can play their team games."

Caborn says he agrees. "There is no doubt that there is still a need for traditional pitches. And we have refurbished many of them. All I ask is for people to acknowledge what we are doing. I don't want praise or even support, but at least be truthful about it. We are trying to bring in 21st-century sports facilities. We have to move on if we want to be the best in the world."

But Hoey insists: "The Government are cleverly mixing the facts relating to playing-field losses with playing-field improvements. It is another prize example of spin. The sooner we have an independent audit the better. Then we might get at the truth." Somebody ring the bell.