Sales of school playing fields hit a three-year high last year, it has emerged, on the same day Boris Johnson pledged tens of millions for new football pitches across England.
The prime minister used a major speech on his “levelling up” agenda to announce £50 million in government investment in football pitches. It will ensure “we give new opportunity to the stars of the future and so that ultimately you are never more than 15 minutes away from a high quality football pitch”.
He also said levelling up could not be achieved when so many people “suffer from obesity”.
But the speech came just hours after newly updated official data shows 236 playing field sales have been signed off under the Conservatives since 2010.
The government approved the sell-off of almost as many playing fields last year as the whole of the previous two years, despite the upheaval of the pandemic.
Analysis by Schools Week shows 21 councils, academies and schools were given the green light to sell land in the 2020 calendar year, up significantly on the 11 approvals the previous year and 12 in 2018.
The figure for last year is in line with the average over the past decade, however, with annual sign-offs ranging from 49 in 2017 to just nine in 2011. This year, at least five further sell-offs had been signed off by May.
All of the sales recorded in 2021 have highlighted plans to invest proceeds in other sporting or recreational facilities, as expected by government.
The sale of two sites at Kenilworth School and Sixth Form in the West Midlands was approved in March. The Kenilworth Multi Academy Trust will use cash to fund indoor and outdoor facilities on a new site, “including the provision of all-weather facilities”.
Meanwhile Pontefract Academies Trust’s sale of an “unused and fenced-off” section of the playing field at Carleton High School in West Yorkshire will fund the improvement of outside play areas at other schools within the trust. The school’s playing field space was larger than recommended guidelines, according to official documents.
A DfE statement alongside its list of approved decisions highlights “very strict controls” on the sale of school playing fields.
It says schools must consult and sales will only be approved “if the sports and curriculum needs of the school and its neighbouring schools can continue to be met”.
It says land sold is “often surplus or unused”, but adds that local authorities, councils or schools initiate sell-offs. “It is not the government or the DfE that instigates the disposal of school playing fields.”