Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Sunday, 30 March 2008 08:46 UK

Row over 'sale' of school fields

Playing field near St Thomas Primary School, Birmingham
Playing outdoors is seen as important in making children active

The government has reacted angrily to a report that the education secretary and his predecessor agreed the sale of 19 school playing fields.

The Observer reported the claims about sales agreed by Schools Secretary Ed Balls and predecessor Alan Johnson.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said it was "not in the business" of cutting sports facilities.

It said sales were allowed only at closed schools or where land was surplus to school and community needs.

Michael Gove, the Conservative schools spokesman, said: "The planning rules need to be changed to make it easier to set up schools and use them for education and regeneration.

"At the moment, the government's whole approach doesn't protect what we have, or allow for expansion where it's needed."

In its 1997 general election manifesto, Labour stated that it would "bring the government's policy of forcing schools to sell off playing fields to an end".

And four years ago it was announced that such sales had to be signed off by the secretary of state and the revenue reinvested in educational facilities.

Play consultation

According to the Observer, since 1998, ministers have approved of at least 187 plans to dispose of playing fields, which are categorised as land that can be used for grass sports pitches.

The paper reports that, in addition to 19 sales last year, a further 53 playing fields in England, owned by both schools and local communities, are believed to be under threat.

Meanwhile, the DCSF said: "Schools cannot sell off playing fields that they or their communities, need. Sales can only go ahead at closed schools, or where land is surplus to school and community needs. All proceeds go back into improving outdoor facilities in the first instance."

A spokesman said "a new national consultation on play" would be unveiled on Thursday.

He went on: "As announced in the Children's Plan, we will spend 225m over the next three years to improve spaces to play, including offering every local authority funding that would allow up to 3,500 playgrounds nationally to be rebuilt or renewed and made accessible to disabled children."

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