The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, and her sporting sidekick, Richard Caborn, enjoyed a day out at Cheltenham on Thursday in their new-found guise as champions of British horse-racing. A pity, then, they could not have found time on the return journey to make a brief West Country detour across the M4 to inspect another sort of field, one which has traversed many hurdles in the past nine years.
In fact, it has become something of a cause célèbre. Foster's Field, at Sherborne, a market town in Dorset, remains the flagship in the fight to preserve the nation's playing fields that continue to be sold off with as much uncaring abandon by the present Government as they were under the Tories. A visit by Caborn and a long-overdue chat with the fiesty octogenarian who leads the Battle for Foster's Field would seem particularly apposite in view of the sports minister's declared intention when he took office to seek a Government strategy that would "help the lad kicking a tin can in the street".
Unfortunately, if 83-year-old Doug Hosking loses that fight, as now seems probable, the lads, and lasses, of Sherborne will have nowhere convenient to kick anything at all. The town's only public park, serving a 10,000 population, has a sign which warns: "No dogs, no cycling and no ball games."
Hosking, a cement company sales director who was also an amateur football coach and hockey umpire, may seem to some just another cantankerous old codger with a bee in his bonnet. If so, he is a remarkably doughty, with-it one. Since moving from Essex 12 years ago with his wife to retirement in a trim little bungalow on the perimeter of Foster's Field, once the recreation area for the now closed local grammar school, he has become embroiled in an acrimonious tussle with bureaucrats, builders, barristers and now, he says, the bully-boys.
It is a sorry tale with a disturbing twist. For recently his pitch battle has taken a nasty turn. He is accusing Dorset County Council, who want to use the nine-acre site to accommodate 96 three-storey town houses, of dirty tricks.
Two years ago the Council leafleted every Sherborne household warning that Hosking's campaign should be treated with caution because of his "personal interest" in the outcome of the application as he lives in a property which borders the playing field. Now Hosking alleges that two weeks ago, when the local District Council met to rubber-stamp detailed planning permission, last-minute e-mails had been sent to four members of the planning committee known to have expressed anti-sale views, warning them not to take part in the meeting as anyone who votes on such matters must have refrained from public discussion. "This was direct intimidation by the County Council. They have behaved abominably. The whole thing stinks."
After a stormy meeting it was agreed to postpone the matter to a later, unspecified date. So there is still a glimmer of hope that Foster's Field might be saved. But breath is not being held.
Hosking has an eclectic bunch of supporters for his campaign. These include the National Playing Fields Association, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, local Conservative MP Dr Oliver Letwin (the Shadow Home Secretary), and the former sports minister, Kate Hoey, who describes the affair as "scandalous". Hoey had been instrumental in getting the Department of Education, then led by David Blunkett, to rescind the original planning permission. But his successor, Estelle Morris, later reversed this.
"She obviously had her arm twisted," says Hoskin. "But she won't see me, won't let me near her. I've tried doorstepping her offices, lobbying her at the House. She sends out a minion to fob me off."
Morris seems to have handed over playing fields matters to her deputy, one Baroness Ashton of Upholland, hardly noted for membership of the Sporting Tendency. Neither she nor her boss have been to Foster's Field. "This is what it has been like all the way through. The only member of the Governernment who has been supportive is Kate Hoey. By golly she tried, she really did, until she was shoved out by Blair. She's still trying now, and often comes down to our meetings.
"As for this new man, what's his name, Caborn, never met him, never spoken with him. He doesn't want to know." Neither apparently do the government-funded Sport England, who did not oppose the original sale of the site.
Hosking describes himself as an old-fashioned Socialist who, like so many of his breed, has fallen out of love with New Labour. "They've reneged on so many promises, and this playing fields business is just one of them." Hosking reckons the campaign has cost him £10,000. "But it has been worth every penny. I've had calls from all over the country from communities in similar situations.
"Obviously, in my case there is an element of Nimbyism, I admit it. I don't want a bloody great housing estate stuck on top of me and neither does anybody else, but that's not what is driving me on. We've already had 200 new houses built in the area and this is a small place. The roads can't cope, local doctors and dentists say they can't take any more patients, and our primary schools can't take any more pupils. We don't need more houses, we need a playing field."
It is believed the sale, to a local developer, would be worth £5m, some of which would be earmarked for improvements at schools several miles away. While further legal arguments ensue, Foster's Field remains cordoned off, notices firmly reminding the public that access is prohibited. Hosking reckons the last time a ball was kicked there was six years ago, and the only one allowed to set foot on it is the groundsman who occasionally cuts the grass.
Just across the way is an old castle that was once the stamping ground of Sir Walter Raleigh. And Sherborne's public school was where they filmed Goodbye Mr Chips. Doug Hosking seems to embrace some of the qualities of both those characters. Whether his war will be won on the playing field of Sherborne seems unlikely but at least he and his troops are still in there fighting. "We'll be dead before we give up."Reuse content