Plans for the proposed sale of up to half of Oundle Primary School playing fields have been reversed by the Northamptonshire County Council. A strong local campaign forced the council to reconsider their original decision.
The council has decided to transfer the majority of the playing fields to the primary school, ensuring that there remains sufficient space for football and cricket pitches, as well as an athletics track.
This outcome was welcomed by town residents and particularly those associated with the Hands Off Our Field campaign, which fought to ensure the playing fields would not be sold. The group made excellent use of social media to publicise campaign developments.
Heather Smith said: ‘We hear loud and clear that this was what the people of Oundle wanted and are happy to listen and respond to this.’
The strong local backing was essential to the success of the campaign. This was prompted by widespread concerns regarding the lack of recreational and community green space in Oundle. There were also fears about the impact any proposed housing would have upon the overall well-being of the school.
Following the lead of former MP Andy Sawford who opposed the planned sale, newly elected MP Tom Pursglove placed his full support behind the cause. Such was his level of commitment that he brought the issue to the House of Commons, introducing a bill that will give people a say over plans to sell off playing fields and park land in their area.
The bill legislates that if a public body wishes to sell park land or playing fields they must hold a public consultation. During this consultation, if a petition receives more than 10% support from electors, then a local referendum must take place, the results of which would be binding.
Pursglove said: ‘Whilst my focus is always on directly helping my constituents, having done some research into this, it is clear that this is a national problem affecting communities up and down the country.
‘As such, I hope that colleagues from across the House will join me in trying to tackle this important problem head on.’
Campaign chair, Julie Grove said: ‘Having the support of Tom Pursglove has proved to be a very strong asset for us. As our elected representative on a national level, we have met several times and each time he has listened and offered his advice and support.’
The playing field issue is still however not entirely resolved. Questions have arisen regarding the council’s decision to retain a small portion of the playing field, which they have valued at £1m. The Hands off Our Field group commissioned an independent valuation of this remaining acre of land, which was valued at merely £200,000.
The campaign has since devoted its work to raising the necessary funds in order to ensure the transfer of the entire playing field to Oundle Primary School. To facilitate this, Tom Pursglove has applied for central government funding, and is organising for Lord Nash, the Parliamentary Under-secretary of State, to visit Oundle at some point.
Concerns have also arisen regarding the logistics of the transfer of the field to the school, especially the timeframe for this process.
It is clear that the group does not feel that their work is complete in ensuring the long term security of the field. Even if they can obtain the necessary funds, Paul Kirkpatrick said that the group has a further role to play.
‘Once the land is secure, we would like to work with OPS to develop the field. Currently, because of the uncertainty concerning the field, it is impossible to secure any grants to improve facilities at the site.
‘If NCC were to hand the whole site over to OPS, applications for external funding (Lottery money for example) would be more likely to succeed and result in the recreational facility that Oundle deserves.’
In a debate that pitted the community against the county council, it was the community that ultimately won. The council always maintained that education was at the heart of their desire to sell the playing fields, and so their motivation to make the sale in order to generate funds for educational improvements seems justifiable.
However, considering that nearly 80% of local residents expressly opposed the sale, it could never have gone ahead.
The role of the council is to represent and listen to the views of local residents. By reversing the proposed sale, they ensured that this role was fulfilled.