The impending sale of Prince George's Playing Fields (PGPF) and its long term future has occupied much of the time and energy of Association Members over the last two months, particularly on the part of the PGPF Sub-Committee Chairman, Andrew Barwick.
Unless we can persuade the London Playing Fields Society to change its mind (did someone say "fat chance"?) there is little more we can do but sit it out and wait until the prospective buyer is known, or some proposals come forward in the form of a planning application. In the meantime, the issue has raised a myriad of unanswered questions.
In his letter to us, Charles Goodson-Wickes states that the sale of Prince George's "has come about through directions from the Charity Commission". This clever bit of wording would seem to suggest that the Charity Commission has directed the LPFS to sell Prince George's. We hardly think so!
Given that the aims and objectives of the Society are to provide public sports facilities, it seems extraordinary that the Charity Commission should actually be advocating the sale of one of the Society's most important assets, thereby diminishing its ability to meet these stated aims and objectives. If this is in fact the case, then the Charity Commission itself has a lot to answer for. Is this the role of the Charity Commission?
If, in fact, the Charity Commission has merely directed the Society to put its financial affairs in order, then we remain unconvinced that selling off these playing fields is the right solution to the problem; and we seriously question the Commissioners' apparent acquiescence in such a proposal.
The LPFS has also publicly stated that it is their policy "in assessing bids for the site, to take special account of those which seem likely to preserve a majority of the site for open space for sporting and recreational use". If this really is the case, why was it necessary for their agents, P.D. Savills, to object to proposals that the Metropolitan Open Land Space (MOL) and Site of Importance to Nature Conservation status of Prince George's be confirmed in the new Unitary Development Plan? Open Space for sporting and recreational use is, after all, entirely compatible with MOL status, whereas removal of that status merely paves the way for development.
Prince George's Playing Fields is the first sports ground owned and managed by the LPFS and seems to be constantly under threat of disposal. The Association has been fighting this issue for the local community for the past thirty years at least. This is because it is the only one of the four sites they own that is not hidebound by restrictions and covenants in this regard. Thus, it provides a quick and easy solution to financial problems. Problems, it could be argued, that have come about by mismanagement. Just why this mismanagement has been allowed to continue for so long is another serious question that needs to be answered.
It has been considered for a long time now that the Society has deliberately starved PGPF of money. By failing to maintain the grounds adequately and thus allowing them to run down, they naturally become less attractive to sports users - leading to underutilisation because of neglect.
This might have enabled the Society to justify its claim that it is not possible to sustain both Morden sports ground (which it manages) and Prince George's because they are so close to each other. But, one entrepreneurial man has proved that this is so much stuff and nonsense. Having obtained a licence from the LPFS to do so, he has over the last eighteen months to two years, maintained and managed Prince George's. Judging by the activity at weekends over this time, it would seem he has had no difficulty in letting the grounds out to local sports clubs hungry for land on which to play, and has made profit doing so. So much for unsustainability! Where there's a will, there's a way. If on man and his dog can do it, why not the LPFS?
And what of the football PLCs - Wimbledon and Chelsea - both of whom have expressed an interest in this land? Can we really be assured that it will be safe in their hands in the long term? We have only our experience to go on. We know what happened to Plough Lane and we know about the Chelsea Village with its hotel complex, luxury flats an conference facilities! It's hardly surprising we do not believe a sale to either of the would afford any protection to the land, and that we remain cynical about its future.
Nor can we be blamed for a snigger of disbelief when we read in the press the shock horror comments of Goodson-Wickes about the school playing field sell-offs. Knowing as we do that he - the Chief Executive of a charity dedicated to the provision of public playing fields - is guilty of engineering just such a quick fix solution to the financial problem of his own organisation. Pull the other leg, it's got bells on!
Another question we must ask is why - given the amount of publicity there has been about these proposals - has there been no adverse comment from organisations such a the National Playing Fields Association, whose role (we thought) is to protect recreational land under threat. Does this mean that they remain in ignorance of the actions of LPFS, or that they condone them?
We want answers to these questions, because in Prince George's we have approaching 40 acres of very precious open recreational land in an urban area, which once developed can never be replaced.
It is needed for use by small sporting clubs, by inner city schools who have no playing fields of their own, by local residents as a green lung against ever-increasing environmental pollution and as an enhancement to our quality of life. It is needed now and even more so, for the future and we will fight to the death to save it from the threat of development.
Jill Truman (Vice-President, RP&WBRA)