LEADING ARTICLE : Tracey and Hugo go sporty

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The great public schools of England have always been keen on exercise - traditionally obtained by chasing the smaller boys. So the news that Eton College is to acquire the use of a magnificent indoor athletics complex to go with the 25 rugby pitches that it already owns is hardly surprising. It all goes to promote the survival of the fittest.

However, the news that the National Lottery is to help finance the new sports centre will drive many punters and observers wild with frustration. It seems to confirm the existence of a death wish in the administration of lottery largesse. If there were one cause less popular than the opera in England, it is the welfare of Etonians; and now the Lottery has subsidised that, too. There will be a fuss.

The allocation of lottery monies so far has played scant regard to the priorities of those who buy lottery tickets and scratchcards. The very different nature of the lottery has been recognised late in the day by an establishment which shares common assumptions with itself - but not with the public. Eton is not a priority for most punters.

But first impressions may be misleading. It is not just a question of whether Eton College benefits from the scheme, but whether anyone else does and to what extent: in other words, what is the balance of advantage? The school is supplying the local council with 11 acres of land, plus pounds 200,000 to build the complex. The lottery is providing pounds 3m. It is argued that the chief beneficiaries of the centre will be local children, who would not otherwise have access to high-class sporting facilities. Eton has expressed the hope that children from West London will come out to the new centre, but that is hardly realistic.

Without the lottery money, the scheme could never have been brought about; but without Eton's land it would apparently have been impossible too; and it is difficult to argue that Eton should simply have given up the land for the benefit of the local children, and received nothing in recompense.

But some tough questions need to be asked. This is hardly an under-privileged area. It is difficult to believe that it comes anywhere near the top of any serious list of priorities. The poor and grossly under-equipped London borough of Hackney gets pounds 4.8m for a sports centre, while Eton and its wealthy suburbs receive pounds 3m. There is something seriously wrong here. Then there is the question of who is going to use the Eton facilities. Will access really be as easy and cheap for Tracey Snoggs as for Hugo Snobb? Will they be open to all, morning, afternoon, evening and weekend? Will local youth groups command the facilities with the same level of priority as will the college? Will local young people want to use them, or will they feel alienated and excluded by the clientele, culture and customs?

An argument can be made for the money going to Eton. A much stronger argument can be mounted for hundreds of other worthy schemes that will get nothing. There is growing disquiet about the way lottery money is being disbursed and the Eton decision can only heighten this. The great and the good who allocate the money are on another planet to the vast majority who contribute to the lottery. It is time they listened. They should be made accountable to those who do the giving.

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