Bowls: Drake's game under threat as councils cut greens

Despite its low profile, bowls is among the nation's most popular participant sports with 500,000 players across the country

Bowling has been a favourite British way of relaxing since Sir Francis Drake supposedly insisted on finishing his game on Plymouth Hoe before heading off to sink the Spanish Armada.

Now bowling greens across the country face a fight for survival in the face of spending cuts by town halls and pressure from developers eyeing prime sites for houses, supermarkets and car parks. Doubts have even been raised about the future of Sir Francis's historic seafront lawn, as Plymouth City Council seeks to cuts its budget. MPs from all parties are supporting a parliamentary drive to prevent the disappearance of a historic feature of many towns and cities.

Despite its low media profile, bowls is among the nation's most popular participant sports, with 500,000 players across the country. It is divided into two main forms – flat green and crown – but the codes are united in alarm over the steady fall in the number of greens in recent years.

Some are threatened by the squeeze on local authority budgets, which means councils are considering closing or selling lawns. Rotherham Council plans to reduce the number of greens it maintains from 34 to 18, while others are under threat in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Plymouth is reviewing the future of its eight publicly maintained lawns, which each cost £20,000 a year to keep in shape, with a view to transferring them to local communities. It insists that none will shut, but bowlers in the city are not convinced.

Other greens are at risk as struggling pubs and working men's clubs – many of which, particularly in the Midlands and the north of England, have a green attached – cast around for ways of raising cash.

The campaign is being led by the Labour MP John Woodcock, who was a bowler in his teens, after he discovered that seven greens had closed in his Barrow and Furness constituency since 1994.

Next month he will have a second Commons reading for a Bill that will give extra protection to bowling clubs whose greens could be put up for sale. They would be given priority to buy the greens – at their value as sporting facilities rather than their redevelopment value – as community assets.

The Bill also insists that a green cannot be deemed "surplus to requirements" under planning regulations if it is home to a team and a majority of club members oppose the sale.

Mr Woodcock said: "Bowling is an important part of community life for many people, giving them a chance to get together, and it keeps them active into old age. It is also an important part of our national heritage going back to Sir Francis Drake and even further back than that." His Bill, which is being co-sponsored by a Tory and a Liberal Democrat MP, has little chance of making it into law without government backing. However, Mr Woodcock hopes its cross-party support will prompt ministers to make relatively small changes to planning regulations to protect greens.

Recent research suggests about 420,000 people regularly play in England and there are thought to be another 90,000 participants in Scotland. About 60 per cent are men and three-quarters are aged over 75.

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