Schools: Playing Fields

Department for Education written question – answered on 15th September 2020.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many school playing fields have been sold in each year since 2010; and what steps they will take to reduce the number of applications for further sales being given consent by the Secretary of State for Education.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The department records and publishes details of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education’s consents for schools to dispose of areas of publicly funded playing field land. Disposals may take the form of freehold sales, long and short-term leases and grant of rights regarding access and use of land.

The definition of “playing field land”, as set out in the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 (SSFA 1998), is “land in the open air which is provided for the purposes of physical education or recreation”. This is a wide definition and it does not matter if the land is not currently in use for sport or recreation or is not laid out for formal team games. Disposals of any size require consent so the listed transactions do not necessarily represent the loss of whole pitches, courts or playgrounds.

Year

Number of Secretary of State consents given to disposal of areas of playing field land

2001 – Apr 2010

242

May 2010 – Dec 2010

11

2011

9

2012

11

2013

37

2014

23

2015

22

2016

25

2017

49

2018

12

2019

11

2020 (up to July)

13

Undated

12

Under existing legislation, no-one may dispose of publicly funded playing field land without reference to the Secretary of State. The current departmental advice to local authorities, maintained schools, special schools, academies and free schools regarding disposal or change of use of playing field and school land (May 2015) clearly states that “all maintained schools and academies must provide suitable outdoor space to enable physical education in accordance with the school curriculum and to enable pupils to play outside” and that “there is a very strong policy presumption against the disposal of school playing field land”.

Further disposals that meet specific criteria can be made under a General Consent Order (GCO). Details can be found in Annexes E to H of the department’s current guidance: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/430705/Disposal_or_change_of_use_of_playing_field_and_school_land.pdf.

In summary, GCOs can be used for transactions that represent no net loss of playing field land to the school estate or where the loss is temporary. Disposals made under a general consent order are not published by the department and are not included in the figures above.

Examination of the decisions where the Secretary of State has given consent for the disposal of playing field land demonstrate that the majority of cases fall into two categories:

1) the disposal of land at closed school sites where these closures may be the result of school relocation, school merger or lack of demand for school places due to demographic changes. The Secretary of State will seek evidence that the site is no longer needed for the purpose of running a school, that pupils previously attending the closed school have access to equivalent or better sport and recreational facilities and that proceeds from the sale contribute to betterment of sporting and recreation facilities across the wider school estate; and

2) the disposal which results in the betterment of recreational and sports facilities at the school site e.g. where sports clubs or community groups fund investment in enhanced facilities, protect their investment by taking a lease from the school (which is a disposal of playing field land) and the facilities are subject to joint use agreements allowing the school to use the facilities during school operating hours and other users outside these hours.

There are a minority of instances where a disposal of playing field is required with little or no betterment in sporting or recreational facilities e.g. a boundary rectification; compulsory purchase; provision of sub stations or other utilities. In these instances, the Secretary of State requires applicants to demonstrate a benefit and that any loss has been minimised both in quantum and quality of the land disposed of.

The government therefore does not have any plans to change its policy position. The department does have plans to refresh the published guidance with respect to the application process which with reiterate the presumption against a loss.

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