The Public Gallery: What exactly is going to happen to Croydon’s playing fields?

By - Thursday 20th November, 2014

Tom Black tries to get to the bottom of a freshly-spun controversy engulfing Katharine Street

What the papers say

So what’s going on?

Croydon Labour, which currently runs Croydon Council, is denying it has a plan to sell off Croydon’s school playing fields. This, at least, seems accurate – initial hysterical reports (many of which came from vested interests) gave the impression that Croydon’s schoolchildren would, overnight, lose all access to the sensation of grass beneath their feet.

As ever, what appears to be happening is a lot more nuanced. The Advertiser has a report of the discussion of this matter at Monday night’s cabinet meeting, and it appears that Labour’s Cllr Simon Hall categorically ruled out ‘selling any playing fields’. So what’s the controversy?

The distinction appears to come down to ‘sell’. Hall went on to say that surplus land may be considered for ‘alternative uses’. Quite what ‘surplus land’ means is explored below, but that’s the official line so far.

The Advertiser‘s Gareth Davies is still plugging away through this mess, credit to him. I recommend giving him a follow on Twitter if you haven’t already – if something resembling a coherent timeline emerges from all this, it’s likely you’ll see it in his feed first.

What the politicos say

Labour’s position has been unclear at best, though things are coming into focus as of today. The plan, apparently, is to talk to local schools (and academies, which are independent from local authorities) about land they deem to be ‘surplus to requirements’. Labour plans are believed to involve consultation with Sport England, something else explored in the Advertiser‘s coverage. Labour sources are confident that there are, in fact, a number of schools where land could easily be deemed as surplus without too much real controversy – particularly as more and more schools introduce the government-endorsed MUGAs (Multi-Use Games Areas, basically a flexible astroturf area).

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been quick to leap into action. In an echo of their ‘tenant tax’ approach, they have launched a petition on Gavin Barwell MP’s website that calls for for people to sign to ‘Save Our School Fields‘. It’s an impressive example of a fast-moving response to a local story, and will probably achieve its objectives – to make people think Labour wants to sell off playing fields (which has been categorically denied) and, like every petition run by a political party (including Zone4Croydon), to harvest people’s email addresses. Signatories are informed that their email address is required in order to ‘keep you updated with progress on this and other issues‘ (emphasis mine).

Astroturf. An advanced form of it is used in the MUGAs that are becoming increasingly common in Croydon, rendering larger playing fields less of a necessity.
Photo by Rune Mathison, used under Creative Commons license.

In spite of the debate being about a certain kind of ‘green space’, the Croydon Greens have been unusually quiet on the issue, preferring to focus on national matters like the Green Party’s exclusion from the potential 2015 election debates. I don’t personally think that the debates will go ahead at all, but it’s understandable that the Greens want their woman up there if Nigel Farage is getting his place in the sun. Still, no playing fields line from them at time of writing.

In terms of the local commentariat, there have been some real feats of mental gymnastics underway as local left-wingers try to justify ‘selling off playing fields’ simply because Labour is (maybe, sort of) doing it and ‘the evil Tories’ oppose it. It seems that when Michael Gove does something, it’s horrific. When it looks like Labour might do it, it’s the right thing to do. It’s yet another chapter in The Croydon Book of Doublethink – local right-wingers have done the same thing in the past. Indeed, some on the left are accusing the Croydon Conservatives of criticising something they themselves seemed open to doing when in power.

One left-wing defence of the plans is that Croydon needs more council housing. It certainly does. But the plans don’t currently involve the council building council housing on the land. Articles on the subject consistently talk about ‘affordable housing’, but even if we leave aside the fact ‘affordable housing’ doesn’t actually mean ‘most people can afford to live in it’, affordable housing replaced what you and I would call ‘council housing’ – it is categorically not the same thing. Social housing may be an end goal of the plans, but while it might not be clear exactly what’s happening here, it isn’t some 1930s-style state house-building programme.

What will the swing voters say?

It’s difficult to predict how the rest of this will play out. Labour will have to come out swinging with a clear, factual message if it wants to lessen the blow from Barwell’s petition. The Conservatives, equally, will need to build momentum from this, and Barwell’s petition site – and recent tweets – suggest he is inviting Labour parliamentary candidate Sarah Jones to condemn the plans as well.

‘Selling off playing fields’ is an emotive message, and may impact how the crucial swing voters of Croydon Central make their decisions next May. ‘Considering alternative uses for surplus land, including social housing’ is less sexy, but may turn out to be the truth of the matter. This will come down to a battle of political messaging – and at the moment, the Conservatives are winning.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Ally McKinlay

    If Croydon is building more homes does it not need more space to accommodate the increase in people? Why sell off land when it could be developed for the School?

    I’ve no doubt there is an imbalance of space among Schools. Indeed i can think of a lovely 1 form entry School in Sanderstead with a large Playing Field which is next door to a large park that used to do really good fireworks displays. There are smaller school sites which are 4 form entry not so far away so where’s the logic in selling land for non-educational reasons?

    The Central Croydon Vote will certainly be technicoloured & the Primary Colours are doing themselves no favours. Does Croydon have an Orange Party? The Purples & Greens are certainly getting stronger…

    • Stephen Giles

      Clearly, this fiasco of a struggling Labour Council is really scraping the barrel – one wonders what they will think of next!

      • Tom Black

        Curious that you consider a Labour Council (allegedly) adopting a traditionally Conservative policy to be ‘scraping the barrel’, Stephen. Presumably you objected to playing field sell-offs when your own party was doing it?

        • Stephen Giles

          “traditionally Conservative policy”… what is that I wonder?

          • Tom Black

            The selling-off of playing fields, Stephen. As outlined in the article itself, with a link to how Michael Gove, a Conservative education secretary, pursued a policy of selling them off when he was in the job. Perhaps you missed the link, so here it is again:

            I won’t be replying to you again, so please don’t try to start trolling.

          • Stephen Giles

            Thank you for the link.

    • Tom Black

      Thanks for reading, Ally. You make a good point that there land that could be used for educational reasons – new school buildings, not just playing fields – but I imagine this would be preserved under the remit of the Council’s plan to only use ‘surplus’ land. I would also remind you that no plan to ‘sell’ any land has been approved or even discussed yet – Labour are insisting they intend to ‘explore alternative uses’, and have denied plans to sell anything.

      Of course, the ‘exploration of alternative uses’ may lead to new plans being drawn up that *do* involve selling land – I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about that.

      Croydon does not really have an ‘Orange Party’, no. I recommend a look at this article (though I did write it myself, apologies for self-promotion) as to why:

      Croydon Central will be blue or red next year, no question, but there will be a sizable purple vote, yes. The Greens may get a strong showing, but I think that will depend on how much national coverage they get – the seat always follows national trends very closely.

      • Ally McKinlay

        I’ve hear that a paragraph has gone missing, but it’s only hearsay so please don’t quote me on it.

        I understand you bringing the “sale” issue to my attention Tom. I don’t know enough other than being conscious that populous is growing, people have kids, kids need educating…

        That said, there’s no reason why, with efficient elevators, we can’t have skyscraper schools as long as they allow for leisure space…