The challenges facing London's playing fields

Alex Welsh 14 July 2016

It was great last week at the London Sport Engagement Event at The Oval to share a platform with Caroline Brooks (London Sport), Sarah Ridley (London Marathon Charitable Trust) and Helen Griffiths (Fields in Trust) to discuss the challenges facing London’s playing fields stock over the coming years. 

The session provoked much debate and one thing became abundantly clear. At a time when London Sport is aiming to get a million more people active by 2020 it is illogical that the very places where this activity takes place are under threat. London has 14% of the country’s population but only 8% of its playing fields and they are vulnerable for a combination of reasons:

• The provision of sport and recreation is non statutory so the facilities and services that support them will always be susceptible to budgetary cuts.

• Community playing fields lose money and can never generate the hiring income to cover management, marketing and maintenance costs

• London’s stock of sports facilities are ageing and the costs of replacement are prohibitively high

• There is an unevenness in the distribution of playing fields in the capital where inner London boroughs like RB Kensington and Chelsea have four and outer ones like LB Barnet have ninety-seven. The quality of pitches is also inconsistent which leads to a situation where those that have been poorly maintained surfaces become chronically underused

• Use it or lose it. Underused sites can quickly fall into a cycle of decay where underuse leads to under value which in turn leads to under investment and eventually they come under threat.

• With Councils facing huge funding deficits, the selling off of a large expanse of open land could net them a large capital receipt from a developer. However, once lost, a playing is lost forever.

• The increasing population has created enormous pressure on councils (who own 85% of playing fields in London) to build new homes on green space.

So, in addition to strengthening protective legislation and policy, what can be done to counter these threats? LPFF believes that the following might help:

1. Provide an updated pan London Playing Fields audit that maps supply and demand. LPFF maintains a Fields at Risk Register but it can only be effective if the data is up to-date

2. There needs to be better joined up thinking (working with ourselves, Sport England, London Sport, NGB’s, London Councils, Greater London Authority and voluntary sector) to create a clear, coordinated and coherent plan for making maximum use of existing sites

3. With a more informed and collaborative approach it should be easier to attract funding to London via the provision of a framework of targeted investment into facilities that have greatest impact on participation

4. Undertake and promote research that demonstrates the wider health, social and environmental benefits that accrue from well managed playing fields

5. Promote examples of successful playing field models (underpinned by sports developmental principles) so that best practice becomes the norm rather than the exception

Following the obvious passion for the subject shown at the workshop, holding a playing fields conference that draws upon the phenomenal knowledge and experience that exists in London would be a good place to start.