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Defending Britain’s open spaces

Open spaces are not just about sports. A gardening tutorial at the Children's Meadow in Glasgow for the G20 Youth Group, just one outcome of the successful local campaign to secure such spaces. Photo courtesy G20 Youth Works.

The health benefits of open air sports have been known since ancient times, but they are under threat for children in Britain today…

Not only are open air sports healthy, they foster social cohesion too. The playing fields of Eton cemented ruling class solidarity. “Play up, and play the game”, with its imperialist overtones, was the watchword of many a public school.

Industrial workers, knowing the importance of sticking together, applied communal ideas of team spirit and cooperation to their leisure time. In the mid-19th century sports, notably football, began to be played on proper pitches instead of waste ground.

The charity Fields in Trust (FiT) – now under the trusteeship of the National Playing Fields Association – was set up. It recognised that workers’ children were in dire need of space to play. Parks and green spaces, playing fields and nature reserves, would need legal protection in perpetuity.

FiT stated its intention that “every man, woman and child in Great Britain should have the opportunity of participating in outdoor recreational activity within a reasonable distance of home during leisure hours”.

Local authorities were urged to adopt a minimum standard of at least four acres for every thousand people, “for team games, tennis, bowls and children's playgrounds”.

Later upgraded to the six acre standard, two acres being dedicated to children, this has provided the benchmark standard up to the present. It was updated in 2015 to include sustainability and the local environment.


Under the umbrella title Open Space, such land is recorded as a community asset, with devolved versions for Scotland and Wales. FiT also advises the Department for Education (DfE) on the disposal and change of use of playing fields and school land.

But children’s sports fields on educational land are not recorded as Open Space. They do not have the same degree of protection. even though the DfE must approve such changes of use.

Despite protections and government assurances, many open spaces have been lost to speculative development such as housing. Hundreds of others remain under threat.

After the banking collapse of 2008, publicly owned assets worth tens of billions of pounds were irreversibly offloaded by councils to plug a widening hole in their budgets. Playing fields, football pitches, community centres, libraries, youth clubs and swimming pools were sold off.

Village greens, those quintessentially English grass sports and recreation areas since medieval times, were eyed up for development. The Commons Act of 2006 and the Growth and Infrastructure Act of 2013 recognised this threat to communities (even-handedly also the risk of devaluation to developers!).

These acts provided for a limited period during which people could register their town or village green or common land for protection, “before it goes the way of the pub and the Post Office” as campaigners warned. But land already earmarked for development could not be registered, and some local authorities missed the boat entirely.

In May last year the FiT green space index recorded a decline in provision, many areas have less space than the standard, particularly those prioritised under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill going through parliament.

FiT found that whereas in 2014 three quarters of local authorities met the guidance, now only four out of eleven regions of Britain – Scotland, Wales, the South-East, and the East of England – met the six-acre standard.

Under capitalism the law is deceptive. It gives with one hand and takes with the other. The Localism Act of 2011 provided for “assets of community value” to be listed for preservation, backed up by the community right to bid on the open market for assets not protected by local councils. In practice, however, sports fields bartered away do not have to be replaced with outdoor facilities, nor do they have to be rebuilt on the same site.

Physical inactivity is blamed for avoidable premature deaths and absence from work on sick leave. The London Playing Fields Foundation has invented a way to maximise community use of sports fields: its free of charge Green Hearts scheme, piloted in Brentford and Walthamstow, enables residents who are unable to take part in vigorous sport to gain the health benefits of walking or jogging along a designated path around playing fields. Provided, that is, the playing fields still exist.

Whatever the merits of alternative use, such as housing, it frequently to some degree entails a loss for working class families. And often the loss is imposed by stealth and corrupt practices. Too many local authorities take the easy way out, siding with government and developers while pretending to advance the interests of residents.


For example, the former London and Midland Railway football club land in Crewe was once home to Crewe Villa, and many local leagues. When in 2021 the land was sold to “affordable housing” developer Guinness, it was on the pretext of ploughing back Section 106 compensation money into new facilities such as a park for the people of Crewe. Instead, presided over by Sport England, resources were diverted to neighbouring Middlewich.

‘Shrewsbury council ignored the legal right of residents to be consulted…’

Housing infill is another threat to green space. In November last year The Guardian described how council officers were seen scouring social housing estates for apparently unused patches of land, including play areas and communal gardens, where blocks of flats could be built to relieve the pressure on bed and breakfast hostels.

In Lewisham and Brent, gardens had already been lost, and mature trees felled. In Southwark residents were told not to speak to the press: in effect, gagging orders were imposed.

Residents in Shrewsbury await the imminent decision of the Supreme Court regarding the council’s sale of part of a recreation ground for luxury housing. Their council ignored the legal right of residents to be consulted. Furthermore it lied about the sale, describing the land as “adjacent to” the park, whereas deeds uncovered by a persistent resident show it to have always been part of the park.

The case has already been to judicial review. But the judge said public rights could not be enforced, despite the council being found to have acted unreasonably.

The failure to fund schools adequately has resulted in desperate measures to maintain the fabric of school buildings. Public land is sacrificed to developers to compensate for lack of income.

This is not a new phenomenon – the refusal of capitalism in Britain to properly fund the nation’s schools has inflicted enormous loss of land, including sports fields, since at least the 1980s. But a shambolic parliament since 2016 has sharpened the crisis.

When it was reported that the playing field sell-off had reached a 3-year high, Boris Johnson pledged tens of millions of pounds for new football pitches, as part of his “levelling up” policy. A sports field, he trumpeted, would never be more than 15 minutes away; a typically empty boast, it turned out.

Johnson was reacting to a report, just hours earlier, from the DfE, exposing the sale of 236 sites since 2010. In August the DfE admitted that since January 2015 the playing fields of 94 more schools had been sold. And that was not really news; the GMB union and others have previously highlighted the issue.

‘Workers are exposing the increasingly corporate and globalised theft of our land…’

Campaigners can take heart. There have been exemplary successes where local people have refused to be hoodwinked by monetarist arguments and decided to take control. The list includes: Stretford Public Hall, Manchester; public baths in Birmingham, Leeds and the Wirral; the Linskill education centre, North Shields; and Shotley Pier, Suffolk. When councils in Brighton and Eastbourne tried to flog off part of the South Downs they were forced to back down.

To judge by the passion with which people up and down the country defend their open spaces, calls for more housing no longer seem to carry weight. And maybe the great “affordable” housing con-trick may have had its day.

Among many ongoing campaigns to preserve “assets of community value” are struggles to save the Braunstone youth centre, Leicester; Victoria Park Lodge, Bristol; and Oundle Primary school playing-field.

The fight to save playing fields in Totnes, Devon, is instructive (see Box). One local parent told Workers “The very fact that schools are forced to sell off school land for housing in order to pay for a leaky roof is outrageous. The education secretary guidelines for schools to get “best value” for land, translates as sale to the highest bidder...”

Big fights, little fights, a big victory here, a small victory there – all defensive, but all significant. Workers are exposing the increasingly corporate and globalised theft of our land, and the machinations of local vested interests. Don’t look to politicians in parliament or councils: subservient to capital, their interests are not the people’s. In the words of the Woody Guthrie song, “this land is your land”.

• Related article: Totnes vs the land grabbers