I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require local planning authorities to ensure that certain criteria are met before planning permission involving the redevelopment of bowling greens can be granted;
to introduce a community right to buy for bowling greens in certain circumstances;
and for connected purposes.
I am delighted to present this Bill to protect our threatened bowling greens. The House does not talk enough about bowling greens. We wax on about a milliard other sports, but bowling—a sport enjoyed by upwards of 400,000 people—has to my knowledge been debated only once before in the history of Parliament. We have Helen Jackson, the former Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, to thank for that debate, and I am pleased that her successor is one of the Bill’s sponsors.
That lack of forensic debate has perhaps helped to perpetuate the common misconception that bowling is a sport exclusively for older people. Nothing could be further from the truth: there are thousands of young people in the junior and senior leagues up and down the country. Indeed, that is where I started out as a 10-year-old, tentatively gripping my first wood on my local bowling green in Sheffield. It is truly a sport for all ages and abilities, as my record of a solitary doubles trophy in all my years of youthful endeavour can perhaps attest.
However, let us be clear that bowling is what gets many older people out of the house and into the fresh air. It is the sport that keeps them fit and active long into retirement. There is the chance to listen to the gentle knock of wood on wood and there is the sense of anticipation: will my opponent go thumb or finger, and will he have the audacity to call for measures? Above all, there are the enduring social networks that make our greens not only a valuable part of our nation’s heritage but an enduring part of community life for so many, be they publicly owned or among the many that remain attached to pub and clubs across the land.
None of us is getting any younger. In fact, the nation is ageing at a formidable rate. The changing demographics should lead to a blossoming of the sport beyond the 400,000 who currently play, but not if the current threat to our dear bowling greens is allowed to pass unchecked. Let me spell out the likely impact of closures. Bowls England estimates that every time a club closes, 40% of its members on average give up the sport for good. In my constituency of Barrow and Furness, there is a sad litany of greens that have closed over recent decades. The Washington and Victoria Park hotels in Barrow have been shut down, despite local outcry. On Walney island we have lost the greens at the Vickerstown Institute and the George pub, both of which were sold for housing development.
I am sorry to inform the House, particularly Government Members, that bowlers at Dalton’s Conservative club turned up for practice one September morning the year before last to find that the electricity and water had been turned off in the club house and that the gates to the bowling green had had their locks changed. Those dastardly tactics were designed forcibly to put the green out of use and so soften it up for redevelopment. Even that skulduggery failed to save the Conservative club, because the entire premises, including the bowling green, are now up for auction. That is a fate that has befallen too many of our pubs and clubs. Faced with severe financial pressure, they opt for a short-term fix that ends up making the problem worse, depriving them at a stroke of loyal and thirsty customers, souring community relations and leaving bowlers without a home turf.
Colleagues across the House have made it clear that the loss of bowling greens is a matter of concern up and down the country. I am grateful for the cross-party support I have received for the Bill, including from Greg Mulholland, who chairs the all-party save the pub group, which has rightly recognised that the fate of public houses and their bowling greens are often intertwined—one cannot be sacrificed in the hope of saving the other.
It is no surprise that the draconian cuts being made to local authorities are placing publicly owned greens under threat. That threat extends even to the most famous bowling green of all, Plymouth Hoe, which symbolises the legend surrounding Sir Francis Drake and the armada. There are similar situations in Manchester, Sutton and Birmingham, Edgbaston, and my hon. Friend Bill Esterson has brought to my attention the plight of the threatened club at Duke Street park in Formby.
The British Crown Green Bowling Association points out that bowlers often want simply to be able to stand on their own two feet. They want to know that if the club is handed over to them, they can run and maintain it at their own expense simply if they are helped out with the rent. That is a solution that is being pursued in Barnsley and looked at in many other areas. However, each closure is making it ever clearer that the current planning regulations are simply inadequate for protecting even clubs that are in active and frequent use. The Bill seeks straightforward safeguards to protect our bowlers.
On the face of it, the current planning regulations ought to be pretty strong. They state that a bowling green cannot be built over unless an assessment has shown that it is surplus to requirement, but owners and developers are finding ways around this and clubs are being closed against the express wishes of the sportsmen and women who use them.
The Bill would insist that if a club is registered on a green and matches are being played on it, it cannot be deemed to be surplus to requirement unless there is a specific vote by the bowlers affected. Planning authorities would also be required to take into account the kind of sharp practices that we saw at the Dalton Conservative club. The Bill would also introduce a community right to buy for any bowling green where disposal is agreed. Where a local club is prepared to commit to keeping the green in use, it would be given the opportunity to purchase it on the basis of its market value as a sporting facility, which is often much more affordable than developers are prepared to pay. We should support bowlers who are willing to form co-operatives to preserve their prized assets. This is a field in which Supporters Direct has blazed a trail for other sports. We should set in lights the shining example of the co-op bowling club in Barrow, which has flourished since it took that route to protect its green.
Bowling has long been a sport that has enriched the communities we represent. It is said that in England one is never more than a few miles away from the cry of “jack high”. That is one of the many things that has made this country so great. We should endeavour to ensure that that remains the case for centuries to come.
Question put and agreed to.
That John Woodcock, Mr Graham Allen, Luciana Berger, Bill Esterson, Robert Flello, Cathy Jamieson, Helen Jones, Mark Menzies, Greg Mulholland, Angela Smith, Ms Gisela Stuart and Mr Iain Wright present the Bill.
John Woodcock accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First Time; to be read a Second time on