School Playing Fields

– in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 4th June 2003.

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Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative 2:53 pm, 4th June 2003

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many school playing fields have been sold in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 respectively; and what percentage of applications that represents in each year.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

My Lords, between October and December 1998, the Government approved seven applications to sell school playing fields larger than a school sports pitch. Forty-two applications were approved in 1999, 32 in 2000, and 22 in 2001. Applications are scrutinised very carefully and can take several months to assess. As applications made in one year may not be determined until the following year, it is not possible to say what percentage of applications these approvals represent in each year.

Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, although it is somewhat complicated by the dates overlapping. Is she aware that the figures that I received from the National Playing Fields Association this week for all playing fields showed that, over the four years, 3,809 applications had been made and the majority were approved. Why does not the playing fields monitoring group set up by the Minister publish its figures regularly? What has happened to the Minister's promise to reduce sales when they are manifestly increasing?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

My Lords, I can say to the noble Lord that they are manifestly not increasing. The National Playing Fields Association is represented on the group that gives advice to myself as a Minister on behalf of the Secretary of State and takes forward the approvals. I am clear about the figures that I stated for the applications. I am also clear that noble Lords will be aware that other pieces of land are sold off that are not school playing fields. They are small bits of land that could not be used in any circumstances for sport.

I fear that some of the figures that are put into the public arena are adding up different figures from different parts of our environment and coming up with a total. The figures that I gave the noble Lord are correct.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, while it is important to have enough playing fields, it is equally important that those playing fields are actually used? Is she aware that many schools still deny the benefit of competitive team sports? Will she tell me what her department is doing to get the right message across to them?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

My Lords, it is a delight to have a question from my noble friend. There is no doubt that we wish to encourage all schools to have the right level of competitive team sports as part of a PE and sports strategy. Noble Lords will have heard me speak before about the need to ensure that our children are given the opportunity to have two hours of PE and sport per week to enable that figure to be at 75 per cent. That is part of ensuring that children have a healthy lifestyle and develop the possibilities of having a sport or physical activity that they can continue with for life and which can keep them healthy. That also ensures that we develop the competitive spirit that is necessary and relevant and that we find competitive athletes for the future.

Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister reassure us that moneys raised from such proceeds of sales will be retained in the educational budget? Especially if the moneys are under the command of local authorities, can we be reassured that they will be used for suitable school purposes—whether gymnasiums, books or musical instruments?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

My Lords, I am able to give the noble Lord that reassurance by giving an example of what has happened in the applications this year. Half of the 22 in 2002 were in school sites that had already closed; quite a number of the playing field application sales that I have received are from schools that have closed during the past 10 years. From the proceeds from the 11 playing fields sold from schools that were still in operation, we have built four new sports halls, two new all-weather pitches, better quality grass pitches, two new schools and much improved classroom and other facilities. From the 11 that came from schools that were closed, we have built three new sports halls, three new schools and a new autism unit.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Minister has given us figures showing a decreasing number of sales. However, could she go a little wider and tell us what consideration has been given to the number of playing fields sold off by the NHS in that period, for example—or by any other government body? They are still basically playing fields and must be seen as a whole, not as individual units.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

My Lords, I cannot answer for the NHS from the Dispatch Box at this time. However, we are keen throughout government to ensure that facilities exist for community activities and sport. Part of the work that is done on the school playing fields side is to ensure that the use to which the playing fields that have been sold could be put does not include community use. In other words, we must ensure that neither the community nor the school itself nor other schools lose the benefit. That is a consistent criteria that operates.

It is refreshing to see that a large number of applications enable schools to provide better facilities indoor and outdoor, such as all-weather pitches, which then become used by the community. That is a very important part of this matter.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, it must be one of them. The noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, can go first.

Photo of Baroness Billingham Baroness Billingham Labour

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the original Question. Is it not the case that the Government have, for the very first time, published an audited account of the number of school playing fields that have been sold? That answers the original Question. Furthermore, the National Playing Fields Association is delighted with that and has congratulated the Government on reducing the sale of playing fields, which, in the previous administration, was far greater than it is today.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards)

My Lords, my answer to that would be yes. We have produced a report which I believe is in the Library of the House; I shall confirm that to noble Lords. I should also be delighted to send noble Lords who participated in this Question a copy of the details we have published. The National Playing Fields Association is an important part of the group that advises me on behalf of the Secretary of State. I have met them and am delighted with the work that they do in helping us to ensure that our children have the facilities they need.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord—