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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Derek Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) on securing this debate on an issue that is important nationally and locally. In the short time that he has been here he has already proved himself a strong advocate for his constituents and a hard-working MP.
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We have not yet received an application from Birmingham city council in respect of the Brockhurst playing fields. Even so, I am sure that my hon. Friend realises that I could not, in any case, comment on the merits of any particular application before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has had an opportunity to consider it, as decisions on such applications may be subject to challenge in the courts.

However, an application is required only if the land has been used as playing field by any maintained school in the 10 years before the date of the proposed sale. I understand that there may be some doubt about whether the Brockhurst playing fields have been used as school playing fields in the last 10 years, and that Birmingham city council is looking into the question. If they have been used, Birmingham city council will require permission from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills before it can sell them. Any application to sell the playing fields will be considered against the same criteria as all similar applications.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out the Government's position on the protection of school playing fields. I believe that the Government's record is exemplary. Before 1998, there was widespread concern about the indiscriminate sale of school playing fields. There was no protection—nothing to stop local authorities selling off school playing fields and using the money for whatever they wanted. No one even bothered to monitor how many were being lost, so we will never know the true extent of the folly. By contrast, we recognised and shared the widespread concern about school playing fields, which is why in October 1998  we introduced the first ever legislation to stop the indiscriminate sale of school playing fields. Authorities must now seek the consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before they can sell off any school playing field.

Contrary to what many people appear to believe, we never promised to stop the sale of school playing fields altogether. What we said was that we would bring to an end the policy of forcing schools to sell their playing fields. We have fulfilled that commitment. There has been a massive investment in school buildings—it has increased from £683 million in 1996–97 to £4.5 billion in 2004–05, and it will increase further, to £6.3 billion by 2007–08. It has increased sixfold in real terms over that period. Direct capital funding to all schools will exceed £1 billion by 2007–08, when a typical secondary school will receive about £113,000 and a typical primary about £34,000. All local education authorities and diocese will benefit from substantial delegated funding for their local priorities and needs. Schools therefore no longer have to sell off their playing fields to pay for repairs.

However, not every part of every school playing field will always be needed. Some fields are genuinely surplus to school and community needs, particularly if the school has closed. In such circumstances, it makes sense to permit the sale of such surplus or unwanted assets and to reinvest the proceeds in better sport and education facilities. In July 2001 we set up the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel to provide expert advice. That independent panel is made up of key organisations with a keen interest in playing fields: it includes representatives from the National Playing Fields Association, the
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Central Council of Physical Recreation, the education organisation Learning through Landscapes, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Local Government Association.

The panel provides independent advice on the extent to which applications to dispose of school playing fields meet the published criteria. All applications are considered against three main criteria: first, that playing field provision and curriculum requirements at the school making the disposal and at other schools in the local area are met; secondly, that community use of a school's playing fields is taken into account, with alternative facilities made available if necessary; and, thirdly, any sale proceeds must be used to improve outdoor sports provision wherever possible. No application will be approved unless it meets all three criteria.

The result has been a steady year-on-year decline in the number of applications to dispose of school sports pitches, down from 41 in 1998–99 to only 17 in 2003–04. I mention sports pitches because that is what most people see when they think of school playing fields. The sports pitches that we talk about in our figures refer to those school playing fields capable of forming at least a small football pitch of only 2,000 sq m. I understand that that is the smallest size of sports pitch recommended by the Football Association for children under 10.

Between April 2003 and March 2004, which is the last complete financial year, the Department received only 17 applications that would result in the loss of playing fields capable of forming at least one of those small sports pitches. In nine cases, schools no longer used the playing fields. Of the 17 applications, three have been withdrawn and 13 approved. We are still scrutinising the remaining application. Of the 13 approved applications, six concerned redundant playing fields at closed schools that were not wanted by any other local schools. In six of the other seven cases at operating schools, the sale proceeds are to be used to provide new or improved sports facilities, such as all-weather pitches, new sports halls or better grass pitches. In one of these cases, the land itself is to be used for improved sports facilities. In the remaining approved case at an operating school, the proceeds are to fund better education facilities at the school.

Last year, in partnership with the National Playing Fields Association, we strengthened the criteria yet further to make it crystal clear that the sale of a school playing field should be a last resort, that proceeds must be used to improve outdoor sports facilities wherever possible, and that new facilities must be sustainable for at least 10 years. That provides the greatest ever protection for school playing fields. In the current financial year, only 10 applications have so far been lodged, compared with 41 in 1998–99 and the hundreds or perhaps thousands that were lost in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s, before we acted.

The Government's school sports strategy, jointly led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Skills, is to build a national infrastructure investing in human capital, to transform PE and sport; to make a step change improvement to school sports facilities; to deliver professional development to enhance expertise and subject knowledge; to strengthen links between schools
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and clubs to create a culture that supports children's participation in sports clubs and offers young people leadership and volunteering opportunities to improve their skills and employability; to ensure better support for our most talented young athletes—our future Olympians—to help them excel in sport and education; and to provide the strongest ever protection of school playing fields.

School sport has a proven and essential role to play in raising standards and improving the health of the nation, not least by tackling childhood obesity. That is why protecting school playing fields is a major factor in our strategy. However, there are still concerns about even the small number of school sports pitches that are being lost. People should remember that almost half the cases being approved involve playing fields at closed school sites. These are unused by schools, and it is far better to release the capital investment put into them by schools and education authorities and to put that funding back into better, modern school sports and educational facilities that are fit for the pupils of today. Sale proceeds are ploughed back into providing all-weather pitches, better grass pitches, modern sports halls, multi-use games areas, and modern playgrounds for younger pupils. Where schools already have access to first-class facilities like these, the proceeds must be used to provide better educational facilities, such as new schools, new and better classrooms, and language and science suites.

I take the opportunity to dispel another myth. We have never allowed any operating school to sell off all its playing fields. Where applications involve pitches at operating schools, the land must be genuinely surplus. We do not allow schools to sell land that they need. They must keep at least the statutory amount set out in the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I am loth to intrude on my hon. Friend's excellent presentation of policy, which is no less than we would expect, but when considering the loss of school playing fields, will he consider the Dixie Dean field in my constituency, which he knows well and which is being sold off for the purpose of building a new academy?

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