THE Advertiser reported on November 14 that Croydon Council was considering building housing on school playing fields. The article was based on a council report which stated there are schools in Croydon which have "very large" playing fields which might be considered "excessive" and could be "considered for the development of affordable housing...". I approached Simon Hall, cabinet member for finance and the politician behind the report, and, during a lengthy interview, he said the council would undertake a review of all school sites and that a list had been drawn up comparing playing field size to pupil numbers in order to identify potential surplus land. The idea was criticised by Croydon Playing Fields Association and the Conservative opposition.
Since the article, the Labour group has repeatedly claimed it has no 'plans' to build on school playing fields, both in public meetings and on social media (and here, here, here and here). They have dismissed a Tory petition against the notion, signed by more than 1,000 people, as "scaremongering". Even the council's press office denies a list of schools was ever drawn up.
At the last cabinet meeting, councillors approved the strategy containing the policy, without amendment.
The Advertiser has not, at any point, been contacted directly by Cllr Hall, or anyone else from the Labour Party, raising concerns about the article. Yet, at today's full council meeting, Cllr Hall implied that he had been misquoted and, according to our reporter at the town hall, accused me of "sensationalising".
In response, printed below is a transcript of the interview, highlighting the numerous occasions Cllr Hall confirmed the council is looking at building on school playing fields, so readers can decide for themselves. "CA" is the questions I asked, "SH" is the cabinet member's reply.
CA: Which schools have excessively large playing fields?
SH: "We're doing a review of them. There aren't specifics. Once they are identified it will come to cabinet. Obviously with school playing fields there are strict rules before you can use them for any other purpose."
CA: There must be some specifics as it mentions schools have been identified. It says a number of school sites have very large playing fields. You must know which they are.
SH: "If you look at the size of various schools compared to the number of pupils obviously there's a huge range. So what we want to [look at] is are there reasons [to develop on a particular playing field]. Sometimes you look at the size of a school site but actually it's on a slope, it's this, it's that. What may look like on paper a very big site doesn't mean there isn't any part that isn't absolutely needed for educational purpose. That's exactly why we are doing a review at this stage."
CA: The report says a number of schools have very large playing fields and ancillary land that may be considered excessive. You must know already which schools they are.
SH: "We've gone through the print out of the size of school sites and there are ones that are very big, or should I say appear very, very big. What we are doing, given there are schools which are much larger than another we need to look at that to see whether we can free that up."
CA: Do you have examples of [schools] which have a relatively smaller number of pupils and a larger playing field.
SH: "In terms of the secondary schools…one of the ones…but I don't know…I think it's important not to get hares running because this at an incredibly early stage…"
CA: Schools that are possibly on this list are going to be worried so it's only a question they will be asking themselves.
SH: "As I say you have to go through very, very strict procedures before that. This isn't something we're going to do overnight or impose. Most schools are academies. It will be by negotiation any way. Clearly there are schools…some are in the south of the borough…some are in the New Addington area, and so on, which have large sites."
CA: Are there one or two that spring to mind when it comes to being a particular good example of this issue?
SH: "Not immediately off the top of my head. We have gone through lists."
CA: I would have thought some would jump out. This is going to be an extremely controversial point for this particular policy, so you must have considered it very carefully. There must be [examples] where you think there is an argument for doing it at this particular school.
SH: "I think we need to look at all the school sites. One of the things we're looking at…obviously we have issues with meeting the school place demand in the borough and that has been a huge, huge challenge. One of the possibilities is saying rather than building a new school, can you expand an existing school because it has a big site. Clearly you are going to look at schools that have got a big site that might be in a relevant location [and] can we expand that rather than having to acquire a site for a new school."
CA: In the report there is that aspect – expanding schools – but separately there is also the prospect of selling off playgrounds to make way for housing.
SH: "Well, we have to meet housing demand."
CA: Given we're in London, space is at a premium and the council has public health responsibilities in terms of the health of children, should we really be selling playing fields off?
SH: "We have schools where part of the site - as we understand it, these are the checks we are doing – there's only fairly limited use made of them."
CA: What's given you the impression there's only limited use made of them?
SH: "For example, the school that I used to be chair of governors at, Castle Hill [in New Addington]. You have part of the site which, because of its location and the fact that it's a private nursery, is basically used twice a year. [That might be a] school which you would look, for example, to expand, or have other community uses, or could that be looked at [for housing]. There are schools that we know, or understand...you have to go through Sport England to agree any change in school playing fields. It wouldn't be anything we could rush into. But it's something that, being responsible…the whole part of this is making the best use of the council's assets. If there are assets that are not currently being used or might have another use in terms of meeting the needs of people in Croydon, whether that's schools or housing, then we need to look at those. What we can't have is a situation where we say 'It doesn't matter if that's under-utilised' or in the case of some of our buildings, very expensive to maintain, let's just accept that."
CA: We're not talking about council buildings. The council has been under huge financial pressure since 2008. The previous Conservative administration, which was criticised for the decisions it took, did a review of council assets and even they avoided touching playing fields in any shape or form. Because, you'd imagine, it's too toxic a policy. This is something even the Tories wouldn't go near, and now we have a Labour council coming forward and saying we're going to be selling off parts of our playing fields, whether that be parts of playing fields that may or may not used on a regular basis, to make way for various things including housing.
SH: "One of the things is the Tories didn't really look at the assets of the council."
CA: Well they sold the Riesco Collection and you criticised them for it no end. What's the difference between selling the Riesco Collection and selling off playing fields? They are both cultural assets. In fact, if you're being fair about it, the Riesco Collection, a collection of ceramics which many people didn't know existed, would have far less of an impact than selling school playing fields.
SH: "As you know the Riesco Collection was donated on various provisos. So it was really was selling off something that had conditions attached as far as we were concerned."
CA: School playing fields have conditions attached that they should be used by children.
SH: "This is why we are saying: If there are sites where we can be satisfied, having looked at all factors, that they are surplus, to leave those not doing anything, when we have all these other pressures, particularly around education estates and around housing, we need to include those in the mix."
CA: The impression you are giving is there are significant portions of school playing fields that aren't being used by schools.
SH: "What we are saying is it needs to be in the mix when we're looking at meeting the needs in terms of development of the borough, in terms of council services and in terms of housing. We need to look at and assess school sites. That's what we're saying."
CA: We've seen two new schools open up in Croydon [in September]: one on a building site with no playing field space and another one opening up in an office. So we're already in a position where new schools are having to open up with no access to playing fields. Now you're saying we're going to sell playing fields off to make way for housing and, secondly, some of the schools that have playing fields, we're going to expand onto the playing fields. Obviously you have to meet demand, but that sounds like a large chunk of playing fields which are under threat, at a time when we already have schools opening with no access to playing fields.
SH: "One of solutions may well be that we use some of those surplus playing fields at one school to provide playing fields for sports and so on for other schools. That may be one of the uses. What you have, and it's a legacy of housing developments in the borough, is very different situations in different parts [of Croydon]. You have schools, particularly in the north of the borough, which have real issues around the amount of open space, versus other sites which are on very large spaces. If in other places we have surplus space we have to look at that creatively in terms of meeting the ambitions and needs of the people of Croydon. We would be wrong not to. The point of doing the reviews and bringing this paper is we can't assume that particular pieces of the jigsaw can't be looked at. That's not sustainable given the various pressures that we are under. We have to look at all the spaces."
CA: Have you spoken to the schools?
SH: "That's one of a series of steps we are going to go through."
CA: I mean broadly: have you gone to the schools and said we might be thinking of doing this what would you think of this idea? There will be schools which will be wondering if it affects them.
SH:"When we get to the point where we have identified the potential [schools] then clearly we will have the proper discussions."
CA: Do you worry this will be politically damaging?
SH: "What I have said is the areas with a shortage of playground, those clearly would not be part of this."
CA: Shouldn't we be protecting the playing fields we have, even if they the ones that are "large". We should be celebrating the fact that we still have schools in the borough where children have access to a large playing field and we value that for how important it is for their wellbeing? At a time when children are as obese as they have ever been, it should be a council priority to make sure, whatever we did, we protected those things. No one is going to bother about a dusty council building that isn't in use, but playing fields is going to be a really tough sell, even if what you are saying is completely fair and parts of them aren't being used. You have to worry that Labour is going to be branded as a council that sells playing fields.
SH: "What we're going to be is the council of deliverance."
CA: But if you deliver smaller playing fields…
SH: "What we're saying is there may well be cases where we can deliver in those schools the healthy lifestyles but also deliver against other council priorities such as housing."
Toward the end of the interview Cllr Hall pointed out that the report itself does not mention 'selling off' playing fields specifically, which is correct. In fact, it barely mentions any details of how the idea would be put into practice. Given Labour's rapid U-turn, we may never find out.