Aug 06

Alan White: Would you say that the latest news on the net gain in playing fields has increased significance in the light of London’s successful Olympics bid & the Green Paper “Youth Matters”, or would you say that these are entirely separate issues?

Richard Caborn: They are all tied together; absolutely no doubt at all. This is about development since I’ve had this job, every aspect of this job has been about developing a sustainable sports infrastructure for England and the UK, whether that’s in schools, in the community, or for an elite. And this is an important component part of that sustainable infrastructure, as indeed the club structure is – the modernisation of governing bodies – everything we’ve done at the end of the process is to leave the most sustainable sports infrastructure that we’ve had.

AW: There have been 72 playing fields created in 2003-4, but this is outweighed by the 52 developments that were considered detrimental to sport. If we’re being honest, the net gain is 20 fields. Given that 5000 school fields were lost between 1985 and 1995, do you think we need more fields?

RC: That’s not my decision here. The point is that we’re moving the debate about selling playing fields on – instead of talking sales we’re asking what facilities a modern sports infrastrucutre requires. We have regionalised the sports boards and given them tools like Active Places. What we’re now saying is, ‘What’s the supply and demand of these things?’ These are decisions that will be taken at the regional and sub-regional levels to achieve an objective that every member of the public will have a multi-sports centre available to use within 20 minutes of travel.

AW: Would you say the DfES legislation passed in August 2004*, which tightened the rules on selling fields, has had a big impact?

RC: Coupled with PPG17, it has had a big impact. This is government working together. It changed us from being reactive to being pro-active on the subject of playing fields.

AW: You talk about government working together, but there are well-documented differences in the policies of the DfES and the ODPM planning legislation. Why are communities’ fields protected half as well as those belonging to schools? I’m talking about the fact that a municipal field needs to have been used in the last 10 years as opposed to 5, be 0.4 hectares as opposed to 0.2, etc.

RC: I don’t think it has that major an impact. We’re dancing on a pin head here. This is a process of refinement– and these may be areas that we continue to explore. As I said we’ve a lot more to do: we’ve turned the corner. These may be areas that we continue to explore. But in the macro picture we’ve turned the corner. I’m not convinced that there’s a big difference between 0.2 and 0.4 hectares.

AW: The NPFA would tell you there’s a big psychological difference – that those small areas can be used to for things like mini-soccer – inititatives which you yourself have put in place.

RC: But the fact that those fields aren’t protected doesn’t mean that they’ve been closed down. We’ve worked bloody hard to turn the corner and I’m delighted that the stats have come out showing we’ve turned a corner – a net gain, rather than a net loss. This 0.4/0.2 hectares issue may need to be revisited.

AW: Tell me about the Active Places website.

RC: We’ve got 20000 sites – bit by bit we’re building a portfolio. It’s about building a portfolio and about keeping it up to date. Each month they’re putting more and more information on, which means that local authorities are able to plan their development strategies in a much more informed way.

AW: I’ve been told, actually by Labour MPs, that they suspect there’s a shortage of good quality space – that there’s plenty of land out there, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a peat bog, or it doesn’t have changing rooms. Do you think that in coming years the real issue is going to be the quality of England’s fields, rather than the quantity?

RC: I couldn’t agree with you more. The demand that’s being made by young people for quality facilities is more and more demanding, and rightly so. That’s behind the multi-sports centres that we’re trying to develop through Sport England, and the commitment that we’ve made in our manifesto to access these centres are important. It’s a balance of indoor and outdoor, between synthetics and grass. I don’t think that’s a ministerial decision – that’s a decision at an operational level, either a local authority, or with Sport England at a regional level. I think we’re giving local authorities the resources and the powers to make those decisions as we develop the sports boards. What’s coming across is that more and more people are playing on synthetics. Recent U21s International football was played on artificial pitches. The technology advances: rubber pitches are absolutely superb.

AW: Scientific research suggests that outdoor exercise is better for children. Do Sport England place too much emphasis on sports halls and gymnasiums?

RC: There’s no doubt that outdoor exercise is better: I think it’s true to say that indoor is more expensive. It’s a matter of getting the balance right, and that will happen at a regional level. Artificial pitches are more expensive to lay, but then your revenue in terms of maintenance is considerably less, and the amount of time you can play on them is a lot more than on a normal pitch, although there’s an issue with floodlights upsetting residents.

AW: Many say that there is an overeliance on planning law, that deeds of covenant would be a far better way to protect England’s sports fields, and would safeguard them for the purposes for which they are intended.

RC: You get yourself into all sorts of legal arguments there. You’ve got to be very careful what these covenants say, otherwise it can create more problems than it resolves. The answer is to make planning laws proactive rather than reactive.

AW: Summarise your thoughts on today’s news.

RC: My story is that this is part of developing with sport itself, I’m not sitting in an ivory tower in Whitehall – I get out there and am trying to develop a genuinely sustainable infrastrucutre. There’s a lot more to be done, but we’ve turned a corner, with a net gain rather than a net loss, and it shows that the policies we’ve put in place are starting to bite. We’ll continue to work with all our partners including the NPFA. We’re moving along, and I think Active Places is going to pay dividends.

AW: Mr Caborn, thank you.

RC: Thank you.