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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to concentrate purely on England. Will he have a word with his Liberal Democrat colleagues who run North Wiltshire district council, whose meeting this week was made famous by Councillor Ruth Coleman sitting through it knitting a bobble hat? At that very important meeting, the hon. Gentleman's colleagues agreed to sell playing fields for the building of 595 houses in the town of Corsham, on Peel circus, Pockeridge farm? Will he advise them to listen to Sport England, which advised strongly against giving that planning permission?
Mr. Russell: If I do not convey that information to the Liberal Democrat group on the hon. Gentleman's local council, I am sure that he will. To the best of my knowledge, knitting is not yet a recognised sport.
We hear a lot a about joined-up government but much more still needs to be done when it comes to sport and the impact of other Departments. I have already mentioned the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Health, the Treasury and the Home Office. I now add another to the list: the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
While the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Minister for Sport dream of expanding sports provision, out there in the real world local government is facing the nightmare of yet more cuts that will inevitably mean a reduction in the level of service and the provision of facilities. Which of today's Ministers will have the courage to tell the Deputy Prime Minister that his local government spending cuts are affecting sport? While the lucky Minister is with the far-from-sporty Deputy Prime Minister, can he also be asked what progress the DETR has made to tighten planning guidance of PPG17 so as to safeguard all sports pitches--not only school playing fields but those owned by local government and the private sector?
The sale of school playing fields is an important issue, but we are fooling the public if we ignore the much bigger threat of the loss of private playing fields owned by companies that for many years have in effect provided a public amenity for the communities in which they are based.
In my constituency of Colchester, it was announced just 48 hours ago that a social club, bowling green and tennis courts owned by GEC Estates are to close and the land is to be sold for development. Also in Colchester, two months ago Royal London Assurance closed its modern, purpose-built sports centre and the adjoining playing fields, including four football pitches--again in the hope that the land can be developed.
The same thing has happened in many places around the country--as well as the loss of school playing fields. The loss of these open spaces will continue unless the planning rules are tightened to protect the green oases in our urban neighbourhoods that such privately owned playing fields provide. Otherwise, even more faceless company accountants will be recommending to boards of directors that their sports fields are a disposable asset.
Government Departments may behave no differently from the private sector. I invite the Minister to remind her colleagues in the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence that, morally, they are subject to the same planning constraints as schools when it comes to disposing of playing fields. In my constituency, football pitches have already been closed by the national health service, and more are to be lost on MOD land.
Last evening I had a meeting in the House with three members of the east region sports board. The Minister for Sport will be pleased to know that in September the eastern consortium for athletes services was established to serve sub-world-class athletes in the six counties of eastern England. Its aim is to help them to become elite world-class athletes. That is the good news. The bad news is that funds available to the consortium, part of the English Institute of Sport, are virtually non-existent. Will the Minister give an assurance that she and her team will see what help can be promised for the eastern consortium?
Another source of funding is football. The professional game in England has never been so rich in money--although, paradoxically, never so bankrupt in talent when it comes to leadership of the game off the pitch and playing ability on the pitch. Does the Minister agree that a tax system should be introduced for football that would bring about a redistribution of money within the game based on the turnover of clubs, benefiting the smaller professional clubs? Some money from the top flight of football trickles down, but it is little more than petty cash when one considers the mega millions sloshing around, with grotesque salaries going to a relatively small number of players who are aided and abetted by parasitic agents sucking vast sums of money out of the game.
It should be possible for the Government to introduce financial strategies to enable football's wealth to help grass-roots football. Junior clubs and youth teams would benefit greatly. I invite the Minister to ask her Treasury colleagues to look at the proposal. It would not involve additional public expenditure, but the money available to football would be used in a better and fairer way.
On the so-called minority sports, more than 100 activities are recognised as sports but they do not always receive the public recognition and support that they deserve. Rowing is an example. Its Olympic success was well in excess of that achieved by some other sports. It is thus in the national interest that we encourage minority sports, not just because success in them will gladden the nation's heart when other more popular sports do not shine in the medals table but because they add choice and variety to the sporting menu.
To what extent do minority sports feature in the Government's support for sport? I am aware that the Minister has communicated with the president of the Colchester and district sports council, Mr. Bill Tucker, MBE, on the matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) has asked me to draw the Minister's attention to the campaign, which he supports, for the British Gliding Association to be allowed access to lottery money for training and development of teams.
I mean no disrespect to those who play korfball, which is recognised as a sport by our national sports bodies. I cannot recall it being featured by the media--local or national--in print or on television, but nevertheless it has the status of a sport and I wish all participants every success and enjoyment.
In contrast, the country's most popular sports activity, which, by common consent of the public and media is a sport, is not recognised as such by the sports bodies. I refer to darts. Can the Minister confirm, however, that the sports mandarins are now less opposed to recognition than they once were? Does she agree that the hitherto snobbish opposition is gradually being replaced with an
Sport England, which I wish to congratulate for all that it has done to lead the development of sport, tells me that the increase in Government support for sport has been very welcome. It says, however, that much needs to be done if the commitment shown by the Government is to be translated into significantly higher levels of participation and performance. What is the Government's response to the challenge posed in that second sentence?
Liberal Democrats genuinely welcome the progress that has been made for sport in the widest sense, but from what has been said in today's debate, coupled with the views of organisations such as Sport England and the Central Council of Physical Recreation, it is clear that the Government can do a lot more to support sport.
The importance of sport is obvious. It improves the health and fitness of participants, and is of significant educational value. Sport is big business--it creates wealth and jobs, and is a net contributor to the public purse. That is why I believe that the Government should be doing more to support sport, and I believe that the Minister for Sport agrees. I wish her every success in her endeavours to persuade her Government colleagues that sport is so important that it needs greater support. There is everything to play for.