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That this House welcomes the Government's commitment to farming and rural communities set out in the Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food and Rural Strategy 2004; applauds the Government's commitment to invest more than £500 million over three years in sustainable food and farming; commends the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy secured by the Government in June 2003, which will be implemented at the earliest possible opportunity in 2005; congratulates the Government's record on public service delivery in rural areas; further commends the £239 million allocated over six years to 200304 through the Rural Bus Subsidy Grant for new and improved rural transport services; further applauds the increase in the resources available for regional development agencies to regenerate the rural economy; further welcomes schemes in place to provide affordable housing in rural areas; praises the efforts to retain the rural post office network; further congratulates the Government's action to protect and enhance the rural environment; and calls upon the Government to continue pursuing a strategy based on long term policies to regenerate British agriculture, improve rural services and revitalise the rural economy as a whole.
Mr. Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), for attending this debate on the sale of school playing fields, and I welcome him to his place. This is his first Adjournment debate, as it is mine, and I have no doubt that his many years of service to the people of Halton, as well as his former career at the then Department for Education and Employment, will stand him in excellent stead for his new role, and I wish him every possible success in that job.
I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to speak on the six-months anniversary of my arrival in the House. We have achieved a great deal in Hodge Hill in that short time. We have quadrupled the number of actions taken against antisocial behaviour. We have won two extra teams of police. We are now one of just 50 Home Office action areas for the Together campaign. Most important of all, we have created a new partnership within our community in Hodge Hill that has already identified five possible crack houses, 10 gang hot spots and 30 neighbours from hell. However, I fear that, after all our work, certain forces are about to move us backwards on an issue that lies at the heart of our community: the sale of the Brockhurst road playing fields to Tesco, thus creating one more megastore for that organisation and involving the possible highway robbery of up to 80 per cent. of the cash to spend elsewhere in the city.
I must give credit where credit is due: the Government have transformed horizons for our young people in this country. They have tightened the rules on the sale of school playing fields not once, not twice, but four times. That agenda is matched by the new vision of offering children at least four hours' sport every week in and out of school. Moreover, that vision has been backed by cash: more than £1 billion is flooding into physical education and school sport between now and 2006. However, I can only wish that the Government's commitment was matched by that of Birmingham city council, and I need to give the House a very brief history of the development of the dangerous scheme to tarmac over the green fields on the Brockhurst road.
The development was first proposed some 12 years ago, but the local action plan for Hodge Hill was clear that only one large food store should be built. It said that there should not be a megastore, that nothing should be built on playing fields and that such fields should not be declared surplus to requirements. Indeed, the plan set out clearly:
That was the position until last year, when after 12 years of the community successfully resisting change, the new Tory-Liberal administration gave the green light for a new local development plan that provided for a 55,000 sq ft megastore that swallowed up nearly a fifth of the playing fields. It backed that up with a cabinet commitment to declare the fields surplus to requirement after the simple presentation of a satisfactory plan from
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Tesco. Did the new cabinet ask the local residents action group for its advice? Did it call local councillors to ask their views? Did it talk to one local resident? Not a bit of it. It even refused to table the report from the residents action group at the meeting at which the deed was done.
I do not want to overstate the case, but I do not need to. The fields in question are technically detached educational playing fields. Following decades of underinvestment, local schools have been reluctant to use them due to the lack of changing facilities on site. Additionally, the proposal will not swallow all the pitches. However, the pitches are rough diamonds because they are of fantastic quality. They are dead flat, never waterlogged and so good that the Aston Villa ladies team considered training on them at one point. That explains why the pitches are in heavy demand from local sports clubs such as Sporting FC, which is exactly the sort of community organisation that is crucial if the Government's out-of-school sport agenda is to be delivered. Its club secretary, John Abbey, has worked tirelessly to oppose Tesco's application.
A second argument against the proposal is the fact that the overwhelming power of Tesco could wipe out all the local traders in the neighbouring Fox and Goose shopping centre. My inquiries to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister before Christmas uncovered a stunning report. It was unequivocal in saying that such megastores undermine traditional businesses such as food shops, newsagents, off-licences and clothing and footwear stores. Those are exactly the kind of stores that currently make up the Fox and Goose. What chance will such local stores, rich in goodwill, stand against a company that makes nearly £4,000 profit every single minute of every day?
A further argument against the proposal is its impact on local roads, which are already some of the most dangerous in Birmingham. Communities throughout the country have interesting stories to tell about promises on traffic that are never delivered, but although local councillors in Hodge Hill proposed a neighbourhood renewal fund initiative to study the traffic impact independently, it was stopped by the new Tory-Liberal administration when it froze NRF projects throughout the city.
Worse still, today a new report on air quality in Birmingham shows that our community is on course to fail targets on nitrogen dioxide levels because of traffic. As Councillor John Clancy, who has ably chaired the local Fox and Goose focus group for several years, rightly says, at a time when we want to cut fumes and protect our green spaces, it is odd that we are trying to suffocate one of our green lungs.
I know that the Minister has not received a planning application and that he is not in the business of speculating, but I think that this is a clear case of a development that is not in a community's interest, so I want to flag in his mind the fact that there are strong reasons why he should oppose the proposal, if and when he sees it. I know that under new PPG17 guidance, planners must show that land is surplus to requirements, but paragraph 10 of the guidance says that developers must consult the local community and show that
In Hodge Hill, the city council might be prepared to declare that the fields are surplus to requirement, but the developers certainly cannot show that the plans have
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widespread support. Council polls show that 55 per cent. of people support the idea, but I dispute that figure because my polls show that 58 per cent. are against it. It would be useful if the Minister would clarify the metrics for community support that must be demonstrated in such cases.
No Minister in this country is above the law, so if my hon. Friend says that Birmingham city council must decide and he has no power to stop it, I will say that the law is at fault. I would not want him to break it, however, especially so early in his post. However, if that is the scenario, I ask for his help to ensure that the proceeds benefit the local community. The Minister's predecessor told the House on 8 December 2004 that 80 per cent. of playing field sales that did not involve school closures led to the provision of much better local facilities, but that is not Birmingham city council's game plan. I have learned that the sale proceeds from the deal will total between £2 million and £3 million, with section 106 money on top of that, but will that be spent in the locality? Not a bit of it. When Councillor John Clancy put that question to Birmingham city council in the regeneration scrutiny committee last week, the council said that not only would the capital receipts be going elsewhere, but a portion of the section 106 money would be placed
That is from a council that is sitting on a single capital pot fund of £233 million. That is from a council with a prospective section 106 pot of £70 million, of which £23 million is already in the bank. In other words, that is from a council with zero stars for children's services and a triple A bank balance, and that is why we need the Minister's help.
Last year, the Minister's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), helped me with an answer to my questions about any proceeds from the sale of the Brockhurst Road playing fields. He said
I would welcome the Minister's exploring whether he could consider the following simple three-point plan: first, to require, where he sees fit, the local authority and the local police to present their assessment of the adequacy of services for young people in a community before deals such as this are approved; secondly, to acquire the right for the Minister to stipulate where money is spent if it is clear from the assessment that youth services in a community are not up to scratch; thirdly, to update regulations on the sale of playing fields to bring them into line with restrictions on the sale of school-owned playing fields. As the Minister knows, although we have been tremendously successful in
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reducing the sale of school playing fields, down to just 14 last year, the level of sales of playing fields is still quite high. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told the House last March that there had been 807. Many of those sales helped to contribute about £200 million to new investment in sport, but many did not.
I suspect that the Minister can already hear the howls of protest from the Local Government Association, but that is a £15 million lobbying organisation. The people of Hodge Hill have only me to speak on their behalf in this House, and they will not abide a gain drain from our community where deals are done with developers and the money banked away to make good service failure elsewhere.
I recognise that that is an ambitious agenda, and I do not expect or ask the Minister to give definitive answers tonight, but I would be grateful if he undertook to consult colleagues in the DFES, the Home Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and come back to the House with a considered view. One opportunity to do so may well arise from the forthcoming youth Green Paper. This morning at half-past 10, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), underlined the Government's commitment to young people and reminded us that if we talk to any mum or dad, we find that what they say would most improve family life is the provision of places to go and things to do. If we talk to any teenager, we find that they voice the same plea. That is the broader point of principle, which is why I bring the matter to the Floor of the House.
Sport is not only vital in our war on yobs; it is vital to the future of our young people. Seven million adults and 5 million children play football in our country, but FA research shows that we need £2 billion of investment in grassroots facilities, such as the fields of Brockhurst, just to keep up with the current demand to play the game. If we are to be successful in prosecuting our war on antisocial behaviour, we have got to give young people more to do, and sport is one of the most effective ways known to policy makers of diverting youngsters away from crime.
Moreover, when I talk to head teachers, and great educationalists such as George McHugh, the outstanding head teacher of Washwood Heath technology college, who I very much hope will serve our community for some years to come, they say to me that sport is vital to the development of our children's characters. Our young people deserve our investment. This is a Government who have made great strides in the last seven years. I urge the Minister to finish the job and, in so doing, to stand on the side of our community in Hodge Hill.
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