Conservative-led councils have been responsible for selling six times as many playing fields as other parties – despite the government’s promise to use the Olympics to create a sporting legacy for children.
Of the 35 applications for school playing areas to be sold off since May 2010, 30 of the schools were from Tory council areas, four in Labour-run authorities, and one Liberal Democrat, said the Labour party.
Labour also claims that in the five cases in which the Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove, overruled the advice of the independent expert panel on the issue, the local authority making the appeal was Conservative-led.
Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: “Of course, the real blame for these sales lies with Michael Gove and the government, who have cut the schools capital budget by two thirds.
“It is not surprising that in order to deal with real pressure on school places and plug holes in their budgets, some schools are considering putting classrooms on pitches or selling fields to developers.”
Writing on the ConservativeHome website on Sunday, John Bald, an education consultant, defended the Tories’ record, saying that of the five schools where Gove had overruled the expert panel, one application was withdrawn, two were from schools that had relocated and no longer needed their old grounds, one was a piece of land that had not previously been used for sport, and one was a sloping area of wasteland – though the latter case was more contentious, and no final decision had been made, noted Bald.
Sales of school playing pitches are a long-running issue: it has been reported that between 1997 and 2010 Labour governments oversaw the sales of more than 200, and from 1979 to 1997 successive Conservative administrations were in charge when 10,000 pitches were sold.
Gove has also relaxed rules on the minimum outdoor space that schools must provide for team games.
Campaigners fear that the new rules – which were approved on the eve of the Olympic Games – will pave the way for the further sell-offs of playing fields and endanger the ability of schools to provide sport for future generations of children.
The Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Dani King told the Mail on Sunday this weekend: “Playing fields are training venues for future Olympians. They can be used by runners to prepare for competitions during school time.
“Although playing fields didn’t affect my cycling training, they played a part in helping to keep me fit and that definitely helped me to get where I am.
“It would be a shame if children today didn’t have the same opportunities. Closing playing fields is going to have a negative effect on kids, it’s sending the wrong message to them.
“They aren’t doing enough exercise these days and that is only going to get worse if they don’t have anywhere to do it,” she said.
A government source said: “This is just the usual hypocrisy from Labour. Andy Burnham has admitted that playing fields do have to be sold to develop sporting facilities. The bottom line is that this government has only approved sales if the school has closed, has merged or if equal or better facilities are being put in their place.”
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