I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require public consultation to be carried out in local areas where the sale of park or playing field land owned by a public body is proposed;
to require referendums on such proposals in certain circumstances;
and for connected purposes.
This Bill has come about in support of thousands of my constituents who are concerned about the proposed selling of a school playing field in Oundle at the site of what will be, in September, Oundle primary school. Recently, there has been a restructuring of the local education system that has led to a three-tier system becoming a two-tier system. In March this year, parents and the school’s governing body were shocked to learn that proposals had come forward for over 50% of the playing field to be sold off. At present, the playing field is well used by the school at breaks and lunchtimes, as well as for games lessons. It is also well used by local community sports clubs. I know that because, as I explained in my maiden speech, only two or three years ago my bowling was dispatched to all parts of the ground by an arguably very lucky batsman. Not only would local school children be adversely affected by this, but losing part of the playing field would have a dramatic effect on local sports clubs, including Oundle Town cricket club.
In response, a petition was immediately started by Julie Grove, a local Oundle mum, whose children will be directly affected by this sale. Then came the brilliantly organised Oundle recreation and green spaces group, who have got out there, spoken to local people and businesses, created campaign videos, and galvanised support for this campaign. I would like to give a special mention to the committee—Lucie Platt, Jo Trott, Paul Kirkpatrick, Ian Talbot, Tristan MacDougall, Jennie Grove and Christina Cork, under the excellent chairmanship of Julie Grove—for all their hard work to date on the campaign. As things stand, the petition has been signed by over 3,750 people, and the numbers are growing by the day. That is very impressive considering that the number of electors in the Oundle ward currently stands at 4,750. It is a very high turnout by any measure. This clearly demonstrates the strength of feeling from the local community, who do not wish to see the land sold off.
Local town councillors have also expressed their opposition to the sale, hosting a packed town meeting back in April. I would like particularly to mention district councillor Rupert Reichhold for his involvement in and support for this campaign. Interestingly, the site in question has not previously been identified for housing development, nor, I am told, does it feature in the emerging neighbourhood plan that the town council is developing. With the Government’s planning changes, this would make it almost impossible to obtain planning permission on this land, although Northamptonshire County Council could still sell the land to developers.
Talking about the level of support brings me to the substance of my Bill. Despite over 3,750 local residents signing the petition, there is no obligation on Northamptonshire County Council to take that into consideration when reaching a decision, nor does it have any binding effect. With such overwhelming local concern formally registered, how can that possibly be right?
This comes at a time when we already suffer from a chronic lack of pitches in Northamptonshire. Indeed, I know of sports clubs whose members have to travel out of the county to play a home game. I want local youngsters to be able to play sport in the towns and villages where they live. When I was growing up, I was very fortunate to be able to play my sport locally. With that, came lessons for life—teamwork, respect and healthy living. Not everyone has the luxury of transport, which means that travelling out of the county is simply not an option and prevents them from playing for their local club.
While preparing my Bill, I did a bit of research and found that many right hon. and hon. Members on both side of the House have supported similar campaigns to protect local playing fields and parks in their constituencies. For example, only last week I talked to my hon. Friend Byron Davies about his campaign in support of residents trying to protect local playing fields in his constituency. During my time as a councillor in Wellingborough, I remember the numerous conversations I had about how foolish it was for the site of the John Lea school to be sold off by the county council. The playing fields were also sold, with the result that we had a lack of school places and a lack of playing field provision.
I am aware that Education Ministers have real concerns about landlocked schools. That problem has been exacerbated by school playing field sales. Such short-sighted decisions then make it impossible to expand when housing growth comes, and that is a particular concern to residents in Oundle.
As I have mentioned, this is a truly national issue. Between 2001 and 2010, the total number of playing fields sold for development was 242. During the last Parliament, another 103 playing fields were lost. Interestingly, there are no national figures for parkland and other green spaces that have been sold for development. That could be due to the fact that there is no statutory consultee.
The irony of all this is that, although successive Governments have promoted the importance of healthy living and the role that sport and walking plays in that, we have seen dwindling open space to get out and get active. Indeed, when I was joined this morning on BBC Radio Northampton by Dr Richard Benwell from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, he made the point that providing every household in England with access to quality green space could save the NHS an estimated £2.1 billion in healthcare costs. Furthermore, these spaces are also lifelines for nature. With 60% of UK species in decline, public spaces are more important than ever for conserving British wildlife.
My Bill seeks to build on the localism agenda and the Government’s excellent measures for protecting assets of community value. The Bill would enshrine in law that a local authority wishing to sell off parks and playing fields must go through the process of a statutory consultation. One of the biggest complaints made has been that consultation on such sales nationally has been shockingly woeful.
I therefore propose that should a verifiable 10% of electors in any ward affected sign a petition, it will trigger a local referendum, of which the result will be binding.
Essentially, that would provide a localist lock and ensure that the strength of local feeling is reflected in any decisions taken in relation to local parks and playing fields. In other words, it would be very difficult for the 3,750 people in Oundle to be ignored.
I particularly want to make the point that this Bill does not seek to stop the selling of parkland and playing fields per se; it merely ensures that those who use these important green spaces make the case for them to be kept. Of course, if a public body can demonstrate the benefits of selling any such land, such as alternative provision elsewhere as a direct swap or the introduction of better facilities, it has nothing to fear.
To my mind, not only is the Bill common sense, but it upholds the principle of localism and the big society. In the last Parliament, Ministers did much to progress this agenda, and I believe that the Bill advances the cause further. The Bill is about ensuring that local communities have a genuine say and a real opportunity to influence decisions about the future shaping of their area, because once these green spaces are gone, they are gone forever.
Question put and agreed to.
That Tom Pursglove, Mr Peter Bone, Byron Davies, Ms Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey, Bob Blackman, Stephen McPartland, Mr Philip Hollobone, Zac Goldsmith, William Wragg, Simon Hart and David Morris present the Bill.
Tom Pursglove accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on