Playing Fields and Recreational Facilities

Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd January 1967.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

3.31 a.m.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles , Winchester

After the whirlpools and crosscurrents of the Steel Bill, it is nice to cruise into more tranquil waters on a subject where there is very little party controversy at all. The principal legislation affecting land for playing fields and recreation grounds has been enacted on more or less similar lines and passed by both Labour and Conservative Governments. My argument concerns mostly the way in which existing legislation should be administered.

I want to do three things—to summarise the case for additional recreation land and open spaces being provided; secondly, to remark briefly on progress to date on this subject; and finally, to seek certain assurances from the Minister about the way in which the Government intend to deal with this matter.

As regards the need for this land, his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, speaking as President of the National Playing Fields Association, said: Recreational facilities are needed for the very young to the very old, for beginners and for experts, for teams and for individuals, for indoor and outdoor recreation—and even for spectators. He went on to say: I think that ratepayers will begin to look to the local authorities to provide these facilities in the same way that they look to them to provide water, sewerage and street lighting. Certainly this is one of the many problems which beset local authorities in these days of rapidly increasing population, when more and more people are acquiring greater leisure and also the means to enjoy it.

Over the last dozen years or so there has been a dramatic evolution in our material progress. I believe that it is desperately important that adequate facilities are evolved pari passu with housing if the character of our people and their health of mind, body and spirit are to be maintained. In this I put health of mind first. I feel that the cumulative stress and strain of modern life, particularly in our great cities, and the pace at which we live and drive, may give rise to a sort of mass neurosis which could be the scourge of the 20th Century just as the Black Death was some 300 years ago.

We must invest in sufficient recreational facilities to keep ourselves sane as well as healthy. I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will agree that even at today's prices it is cheaper to buy a sports ground than it is to build a mental hospital.

As regards progress with these problems, to date every Member of Parliament must know of the many problems of land usage in his constituency and it is a fair bet that some of the most intractable of these concern the use of land for sport and recreation. In my constituency, Winchester, the residents' association of the new Harestock Estate has no children's playground, and development of the site there has gone so far that it is now almost impossible to see how this basic amenity can be adequately provided. Equally, as another example, the Winchester Rugby Football Club has been looking for a suitable ground for about eight years, so far without success. In my own village, the New Alresford Golf Club is threatened by a proposed by-pass which would cut out three of its nine holes, and it is difficult to see a solution.

These are typical of the difficulties in an area where the population density is not at all high. It must be very much worse elsewhere. I recently read, for instance, that if all the population of Lancashire were to go to the seaside on the same fine day, there would be exactly two inches of coastline available to each person.

The outlook is not entirely bleak, and I should like to pay tribute to the work which has been done by very many voluntary bodies. Perhaps first and foremost of these is the National Playing Fields Association, which has been campaigning vigorously and very effectively for over 40 years. The Royal Yachting Association has publicised the ever-growing demand for recreational facilities, sailing, boating, and so on. The Solent Preservation Society has been active to preserve the only large stretch of sheltered water on the whole of the South Coast of England. The National Trust, and its offshoot "Operation Neptune", are both very well known, and there are countless others.

Also, to be fair, one must say that the majority of local authorities are sympathetic within their financial limitations. Certainly the Hampshire County Council has been most helpful, enterprising and progressive in this, as in many other matters. Sir Andrew Wheatley, the Clerk to the County Council and the Hampshire Planning Authority realise that, in Sir Andrew's words: we are dealing with a human problem of the first magnitude. What concerns us is the provision of the best possible environment in which people can live, work and play. Regarding the steps that should be taken for the future, the first that I want to urge upon the Government is that they must think big about this problem. My chief worry is what is the Government's thinking on this matter? They must think big. I am sure that the Minister, in his reply, will be speaking about the new Sports Council. I am equally sure that this is an admirable body and that its function to advise the Government is a correct one. I hope that the Minister will not think me cynical if I say that there has never been any lack of advice for the Government on what to do, and no further proliferation of councils, committees or sub-committees will really advance the matter much further. I am not, of course, saying anything against the Sports Council, either collectively or individually, but the point is that the problems are well known and evident for all to see.

What the Government have to do, in short, is to make sure that, by hook or by crook, land is available. Land, after all, is the stock in trade of recreation, just as it is for housing. The two must essentially go together.

Incidentally, I note that Clause 1 of the new Land Commission Bill instructs the Commission to comply with such directions, whether of a general or a specific character, as may be given to them by the appropriate Minister or Ministers. In other words, it authorises them to do anything at all anywhere. Of course, the Minister must expect me to express a fervent hope that the Land Commission Bill will not be passed in any shape or form. But, certainly as regards recreational land, no such extravagant powers as are included in the Bill are needed as the Minister has ample powers under previous legislation. He only needs to use them.

The Land Commission Bill in this context is a sledgehammer to crack an already open walnut. It must also be remembered that some 30,000 acres of valuable agricultural land disappears for building purposes every years; so a silk glove is needed here, not a mailed fist.

My first specific question is to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us exactly how the Government intend to ensure that land for recreation and land for housing are made available simultaneously. I see from the Report of the Sports Council that public capital investment in sport and recreation for the year 1965–66 totalled just over £34 million. In the break-down, the facilities used exclusively for sport account for £13·9 million. The figures in the Report seem to indicate, at first blush, rather too much emphasis on grandiose schemes such as very large swimming pools. For instance, the Report tells us that the greatest expenditure in England and Wales, making up over 80 per cent. of loan sanctions, was for the construction of new swimming pools, and 39 schemes received consent. As a matter of arithmetic, this means that £250,000 or more went on each swimming pool project.

At first sight, it would seem more sensible to buy land for playing fields in built-up areas and land for wider recreational purposes in the countryside before the march of development inevitably puts up the price, installing such facilities as swimming pools or whatever it might be at a later date when they can be afforded. This brings me to my second question. Will the Minister say something specific about the Government's policy in this connection?

Third, what are the Minister's views about how much land should be allowed for playing fields in urban development? The National Playing Fields Association has for many years advocated a figure of 6 acres per 1,000 inhabitants. This is an optimum figure, and one must bear in mind that it represents about a quarter of all development land being left as open space, a very large figure. It may no longer be correct as a figure. It may not be attainable in present conditions of land shortage. Perhaps it could be scaled down now that so many families have motor cars and can go further afield from their homes.

But the National Playing Fields Association has been the only body brave enough to stick its neck out and give a definite figure. I want the Government either to accept it for planning purposes or reject it. If they accept it, the local authorities should be urged and assisted to comply with it. I say urged and assisted, not compelled to comply. If the Government do not accept it, will the hon. Gentleman tell us what their policy is on the question? It is essen- tial that the local authorities have before them a guidance figure of that sort.

Fourth, I urge the Minister to make full use of the knowledge, experience and enthusiasm of voluntary and amateur clubs and associations. There are many thousands of these throughout the country, and they provide the life-blood of British sport and recreation. It should be a fundamental principle of Government policy to provide the climate in which sport and recreation can flourish but they should not seek to organise it directly. There is a parallel here with industry and private enterprise, but I shall not ripple the smooth surface of this debate by throwing that pebble in at this hour of the morning.

Fifth, I put in a special word for sailing and just "messing about in boats". In 1946, only 20 years ago, the Royal Yachting Association recognised 321 clubs in England as compared with 1,370 today. Its individual membership has risen in the same period from just 273 individuals to over 23,000. The Association does yeoman service on behalf of boat owners. When the Government bring forward their countryside Bill, which was forecast recently by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, I hope that coastal and inland waters for recreation will loom large in the plans proposed in it.

But will the Parliamentary Secretary assure us that it will include no regulation or registration of boats? A recent article in the Daily Telegraph made this point very strongly, and I wish to quote a short paragraph: When you step into a boat, you step out of bondage. You can shove off without obtaining prior official permission, without paying special taxes or licence fees, without having a medical certificate or a blood check, without passing a proficiency test, without a passport or an insurance card, without putting money in a meter, without giving the police your name, age, occupation … Can the Minister promise the huge population which is interested in boating in all its facets that the Government intend no such regulatory measures in the future. Can he give a firm assurance on that tonight?

To sum up: Mr. Smart, the Hampshire County Planning Officer, visualises a recreational triangle. The first side concerns actual sporting interests; the second, what he calls "the unorganized use of the countryside and coast by an ever-growing and car-owning population"; and the third, town and country planning in all its aspects.

I cannot conclude more tactfully than by asking the Minister to remember a statement in one of his party's General Election manifestos that it is not the job of the Government to tell people how leisure should be used. When I read that, I said to myself, "Thank goodness for small mercies". It continued by saying that in a society where facilities are not provided when they are not profitable … it is the job of the Government to ensure that leisure services are provided. Will the Minister please see that that is one of the promises in the Manifesto that are kept?

3.48 a.m.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

The whole House would agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) about the great importance of playing fields and recreational facilities. I do not think that there is any argument about that. But the question must be looked at in the context of the financial situation.

There is the irony that people in general terms are always in favour of reducing public expenditure and demand a much more vigorous attitude from the Government in cutting public expenditure, as long as it does not happen to cut into their own particular interest. The Government must examine all claims on the public purse, phase the development in each sphere and apportion the amount that is available. That is done by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government by means of loan sanctions. That is his main control over the amount of money that can be spent in this sphere. There is a limit to the amount that can be spent on the provision of playing fields, as there is to every other type of capital investment in local government.

The hon. and gallant Member asked how land for recreation and housing can be provided simultaneously. It is the primary responsibility of the planning authority to see that when it gives planning approvals to development for housing or any other purpose there are adequate resources of land for recreational purposes. The hon. and gallant Member quoted the case of Harestock. As far as I know, we in the Ministry have not had any part in Harestock. The planning authority has given planning permission and has presumably made its own allocations of land for recreation there. If it has not, then the hon. and gallant Gentleman should take it up with it and the local authority in his constituency rather than with the Ministry. People are always complaining about Government interference with the work of good local government and it is an essential function of good local government to provide proper and balanced schemes.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to the need to be fairly critical of some of the proposals made—proposals which, for example, are too grandiose, perhaps for swimming baths and so on. That is where the Minister plays a part through loan sanction. One of the things we look at in giving loan sanction for such purposes is whether the project is reasonable and whether it is too ambitious. In order to spread the money available it is necessary that we be fairly strict about this.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked about the standard of the six acres per thousand. This is a N.P.F.A. standard, not the Ministry's, but it is the only one available. I think that an average of that sort is not really very helpful because one cannot compare, with such a yardstick, very widely differing areas and widely differing needs. A working party of the Sports Council is looking at the question of the standard and I hope that it will report the results of its thinking in the spring. Until then, the Minister has, in examining applications for approvals for open spaces, to look at the particular conditions in the neighbourhood concerned and consider what alternative facilities are available and so on.

I cannot give any assurance about what will be in future legislation on the countryside. To do so would be to break the rule about anticipation of legislation. The hon. and gallant Gentleman will have to wait for the Bill, when he will be able to develop any criticisms that he may have.

The only other point to which I draw the hon. and gallant Gentleman's attention—he did not mention it through a surprising lapse—is that the Government have introduced a grant for the acquisition of public open spaces in the Local Government Act which has just passed through Parliament. There is thus now a specific grant to assist local authorities which are acquiring public open spaces That is of practical help.

This does not mean that there can be unlimited acquisition. It has to be looked at against the background of how much money is available and of competing needs. But the fact that we chose this time to introduce a new grant of 50 per cent. shows that we are conscious of the importance of public open spaces and that we want to do all we can to encourage this development and help with such acquisition.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Four o'clock a.m.