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Croydon Council considers building on school playing fields, says some are 'very large' and 'excessive'

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HOUSING could be built on school playing fields under controversial plans being drawn up by the council.

A new report says there are schools in Croydon which have "very large" playing fields which might be considered "excessive" and could be developed on.

It does not identify any specific schools but the councillor behind the idea has told the Advertiser all of the borough's playing fields – including those used by academies – will be reviewed.

They face a double threat as the report also mentions the council's intention to create more places at existing schools by expanding onto playing fields.

Edward Handley, chairman of Croydon Playing Fields Association, said he was "horrified" by the plans which the Conservative opposition has branded as "appalling".

Simon Hall, cabinet member for finance, said building on playing fields would help tackle the borough's housing crisis, meet demand for school places and find some of the £100 million it needs to save over the next three years.

He said schools in Croydon found to have "surplus" space would be approached with the view to the land being used for affordable homes or council services.

"We have to make the best use of the council's assets. If there are assets not currently being used which could meet the needs of the people of Croydon in another way then we need to look at it," he explained.

The proposals are briefly mentioned in a new strategy, published this week, announcing a review of all 700 of the council's property assets, which include parks, depots and youth clubs.

Plans include renting out space in Bernard Weatherill House, the council's new headquarters, and continuing the previous Conservative administration's policy of asking voluntary organisations to take on responsibility for the buildings they use. The changes it lists would save £3.25 million.

The most controversial aspect of the report, due to be approved by the cabinet on Monday, refers to schools.

It states: "A number of school sites have very large playing fields and ancillary land that may be considered excessive for the number of students that attend the school. Where this may be the case the schools will be identified and opportunities considered for development of affordable housing or other service provision, subject to negotiation with the provider where the council is not the landlord."

The authority believes academies – usually granted 125 year leases on their sites – could also be included because it remains the freeholder.

Cllr Hall said a list had been drawn up of all schools in Croydon comparing pupil numbers with playing field size. He was reluctant to give specific examples when asked which schools had "excessive" fields.

But, he added: "Some are in the south of the borough and some are in the New Addington area."

There are strict rules protecting school playing fields and any change of use would have to be agreed with the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles.

Cllr Hall said: "Quite properly, there are very careful considerations that have to be given before a playing field can be used for any other purpose. We would never go against those.

"But we have to be creative in terms of meeting the ambitions and the needs of people in Croydon. We would be wrong not to."

Mr Handley, whose group aims to protect school playing fields - used in the past by the likes of England rugby skipper Chris Robshaw and Palace star Wilfried Zaha - said: "I'm horrified to hear this. We want playing fields so children can play and enjoy sports and recreation.

"The more green space we lose the less opportunity they will have to become fit and escape the obesity crisis.

"I understand all councils are in very difficult financial situations but they shouldn't be selling off priceless assets."

Sara Bashford, deputy leader of the Conservative group, said the idea was "appalling".

"If we don't keep our open spaces and school fields we're going to end up being overcrowded and over-developed," she added.

Cllr Hall said: "This plan is at an incredibly early stage. This is not something we can do overnight or impose.

"What we can't have is a situation where we say it doesn't matter if a site is under-utilised or is expensive to maintain.

"We're saying that, where sites are found to be surplus, and we have all these pressures around school places and housing, they should be in the mix.

"We can't just assume that various pieces of the jigsaw can't be looked at.

"It's unsustainable given the pressures we face."

New Addington school highlighted 

THE council report does not mention specific schools and Simon Hall would not initially be drawn on which may or may not be affected.

He eventually gave one example, telling the Advertiser that Castle Hill Primary School, in New Addington had a section of its playing field it barely used.

He said: "I used to be the chair of governors at Castle Hill, where part of the site, due to it's location, is basically used twice a year. It's that type of school we might look to expand, bring in other community use or it could be looked at [for housing]."

Reach2, the academy chain which runs Castle Hill, could not be reached for comment.

"What is best for pupils?"

THE Government issued local authorities with new advice on protecting school playing fields earlier this month.

Any changes to school playing fields would have to be agreed with Sport England and the Secretary of State. Consent is also required if schools themselves are expanded onto fields.

The guidance states: "Authorities and schools should not view the sale of playing fields as a mainstream or routine method to fund improvements to facilities.

"The Secretary of State expects authorities...to first investigate and exhaust all other means of funding before considering the sale of school playing fields."

All decisions, it says, should have one question in mind: "What is best for pupils' education and their wider school life?"

Councils are expected to have explored "all reasonable options" before making an application.

Where plans are put forward to change playing fields for financial reasons, the proceeds would be ring fenced and the government expects the first priority for reinvesting the money should be sports facilities or specific capital projects to improve provision at or for schools. 

Croydon Council considers building on school playing fields, says some are 'very large' and 'excessive'


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