Citizens have a right to the proper education of their children, including the provision of outdoor sports and recreation facilities by publicly-funded schools, and also to the peaceful enjoyment of their family life, including their homes and neighbourhoods and the amenity spaces within these. School playing fields play a key role in both. However, growing pressure on development land has created powerful incentives to sacrifice the public interest for private gain through the sale of school playing fields.
The last Government sought to introduce controls over the disposal of school playing fields in S77 of the School Standards and Frameworks Act 1998. Unfortunately, these controls proved ineffective.
Statistics produced by the DfES for October 1998 to December 2002 showed that under the new legislation the number of applications received for playing field disposals where the area was larger than a sports pitch was 168. Of those, 118 were approved, 19 were withdrawn and only two were rejected. The number of applications received for playing field disposals where the area was smaller than a sports pitch was 102, of which 84 were approved, 10 were withdrawn and four were rejected. Therefore the overall picture during the period was 202 approvals and only six rejections (Hansard, HL Deb 24 January 2005 vol 668 cc1105-32)
There is no evidence that the minor changes to the disposals regime subsequently introduced have had any material effect in improving the situation, and MPs and peers of both the Coalition parties have drawn attention to this on a number of occasions. Decisions:
- have repeatedly been made without any consultation with the local community (other than by the disposing school itself, which is parti pris – an arrangement which, quite apart from its impact on the quality of decisions, flies in the face of natural justice);
- have often been driven by a desperate need to find capital funding, whatever the cost to children's recreation and health; and
- have frequently been justified by the questionable assumption that indoor facilities – which are often less flexible, less beneficial in health terms, and over the long run more costly to maintain – are a simple equivalent for open-air grounds.
The constitutions of foundation schools and academies make it next to impossible for local communities (and often, in practice, for parents) to hold their governors to account for such decisions. Moreover, ministerial consent, once given, remains valid in perpetuity, regardless of changes in the school's situation (unlike planning permission, which lapses after five years, and thus allows a further look at the merits of the case after a reasonable period of time).
If adults and children, therefore, are to retain the right to enjoy the benefits of the school playing fields to which taxpayers have contributed, the 1998 legislation therefore needs to be tightened. It needs to ensure that all consents granted so far, and all future consents, should lapse five years after they have been granted; and should strengthen the presumptions (i) that open-air playing fields should be retained unless there is genuinely no further need for them, and, in order to minimise the distortion of decisions by funding considerations, (ii) that the full proceeds of any disposals that are so justified should be returned to public funds at local or national government level. Moreover, the Government needs to declare as its policy that the expansion of the academies programme to which it is committed will not in any way prejudice the need to retain playing fields in the public interest, or the way in which the necessary controls over disposals of playing fields are exercised.