As obesity and diabetes surge, we need a law to ban the sale of school playing fields

As obesity and diabetes surge, we need a law to ban the sale of school playing fields

THE GMB trade union has rightly drawn attention to the fact school playing fields are still being sold off at an alarming rate – 215 since 2010.
That is a national scandal, given that a third of children aged two to 15 — almost four million in total — are overweight or obese.
News Group Newspapers Ltd It is a national scandal that school playing fields are being sold off at an alarming rate while obesity and diabetes in children continues to surge
According to the National Child ­Measurement Programme, the percentage of children aged ten or 11 with severe ­obesity has reached an all-time high. That’s a ticking health bomb.
As it is, the annual cost to the NHS of treating diabetes is £14billion — or £1.5million an hour. If we don’t urgently address the national obesity epidemic, things will only get worse.
Yet in spite of British sport never ­having been in better shape, little effort is being made to tackle this crisis in schools.
Since the triumph of our athletes at the London Olympics in 2012, playing fields are being concreted over at the rate of one every two weeks. Soon, there won’t be any left.
Why are we being so short-sighted?
Predictably enough, the GMB places the blame squarely at the feet of those “evil Tories”.
“The Government has cut education funding to such an extent that schools are being forced to flog their playing fields to make ends meet,” claims ­Francis Duku, a GMB organiser.
But you can’t blame the sale of playing fields on Conservative cuts.
Since the triumph of our athletes at the London Olympics in 2012, playing fields are being concreted over at the rate of one every two weeks.
After all, school funding nearly doubled in real terms between 1997 and 2010.
Yet almost as many playing fields were sold during Labour’s time in office as they have been since 2010.
And one of the reasons schools are struggling to cope with the four per cent funding cut since 2015 is because schools took advantage of budget increases over the previous 18 years to whack up teacher ­salaries. That point was brought home a few weeks ago when the head of a South ­London girls’ school appeared on the BBC to complain about having to clean her school’s toilets as a result of Tory cuts.
Turned out she’d just had a pay increase of £10,000, bringing her annual salary up to around £130,000.
When you factor in that schools are obliged to pay an additional 16.5 per cent of teachers’ salaries into their ­pension funds — rising to 23 per cent later this year — it’s little wonder they are struggling to cope.
But the reason the GMB’s analysis doesn’t stack up is because it is not schools that are selling off playing fields but the local authorities that own them.
According to an investigation by the Times Educational Supplement, 65 councils sought permission to sell 160 acres of school ­playing fields in 2016 — more than double the amount the ­previous year and the largest ­number on record.
The TES investigation revealed that these 65 local authorities had applied for permission to sell 684 acres of school playing field land since 2010, equivalent to 456 professional football pitches.
The worst offenders are Knowsley, Kent and Barnsley, two of which are Labour controlled.
But, in truth, it doesn’t matter which party is in charge.
It is not schools that are selling off playing fields but the local authorities that own them.
Property prices have been so buoyant since the mid-1990s that councils of all stripes have not been able to resist taking advantage of this bull market.
In 2011, the Royal Borough of Kensington And Chelsea flogged the playing fields attached to Holland Park Comprehensive for a whopping £120million.
The idea that sales like this are due to pressure to create affordable housing — another of the GMB’s Tory-bashing claims — is simply laughable.
The luxury flats built on the site of ­Holland Park’s playing fields are now selling for as much as £20million each.
Councils nearly always sell to the ­highest bidders, and nine times out of ten that means residential property developers.
Where central government deserves some of the blame is for changing the regulations around the sale of playing fields in 2012.
Before that, all schools in England were required to have at least 5,000 square metres of outdoor space for children to play on.
Now they are merely obliged to provide a “suitable” amount — a conveniently ­elastic requirement — and some new schools are not given playing fields at all.
I know this because I helped set up four free schools in West London, and none of them have any outdoor space to speak of due to the high land costs and the area being densely urban.TACKLE THE CRISIS
The idea that not having playing fields saves money — another of the GMB’s wild claims in their efforts to link the sell-off to funding cuts — is also ridiculous.
We have to spend tens of thousands a year on hiring football, rugby and hockey pitches, as well as coach travel, and the time may come when we can’t afford it.
The solution is to tighten up the ­regulations, making it impossible for any more playing fields to be sold, and force local authorities to provide schools with suitable outdoor space.
In America, all schools came with lavish sports facilities — one reason it has a more active population than the UK.
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According to a team of social scientists at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, almost 40 per cent of British women decrease the amount of physical exercise they do ­during adolescence or stop it altogether, compared to just 15 per cent of women in the US.
Our politicians need to put party ­differences aside and launch a joint effort to tackle this crisis.
If they don’t, not only will British sport suffer but we will become a nation of ­Teletubbies.

Toby Young is an associate editor of The Spectator.

Getty The equivalent of 456 football pitches have been sold by councils in nine years
Getty The annual cost of treating diabetes is at £14billion
Scientists blame working mums for UK’s child obesity epidemic


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