Charles Johnston: We must protect the places where sport is played

FOR many of us, our first memories of playing sport involve a muddy and windswept school or community playing field. It's where you either loved, or loathed, being out in fresh Yorkshire air and being part of our country's grassroots sporting culture. Sport is a far more inclusive and welcoming activity than it once was, but the role – and importance – of the playing field remains undimmed.

With London 2012 just around the corner, and with England, hopefully, retaining cricket's Ashes in the early hours of this morning, attention is turning to the opportunities available for everyone to take part in sport.

Whether it is about clubs, coaches or facilities, people are asking "what's in it for us?" And rightly so – the single greatest potential benefit of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games is seeing people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities inspired to play sport in their communities.

Few people know quite how much work goes into protecting and improving public playing fields so that we, and generations to come, can enjoy using them for sport. It is certainly true that in the 1980s, a worrying number of open spaces for sport were lost as other policy pressures over-rode the sporting priorities. This could not be further from the truth today.

Sport England, for one, holds a powerful position when it comes to ur public playing fields. Landowners, including councils, are required by law to consult us on any proposed development that would affect or lead to the loss of a sports playing field. Sport England objects to all applications unless the developer can prove it will improve or safeguard sports provision.

This month, we reported our latest success rate in protecting playing fields, with 96 per cent of all planning applications affecting a sports playing field in Yorkshire during 2008/09 leading to the places where people play sport being improved or protected.

The number of applications which led to a detrimental impact on sport, in spite of our objections, was eight. These figures do not include a change in the law which came into force in April 2009 which gave Sport England more power to protect playing fields by including mini pitches, often found at primary schools. These were previously too small to qualify for protection. The impact of this change will be reported next year.

It's worth looking at a couple of examples to demonstrate the role Sport England plays in protecting and improving playing fields and sports provision in Yorkshire and Humberside.

This year, we were consulted on proposals to build a new children's play area on a playing field used for football in the East Riding. Through negotiation, the development was able to go ahead because we secured an additional investment in a new junior football pitch at an under-used playing field in a nearby village.

This meant a local primary school had a pitch large enough for older children to play junior football on for the first time. The local community also benefited from the development as it helped address a deficit in junior football pitches in the local area.

In Hull, we helped to ensure that the new sports facilities created during the redevelopment of Kelvin Hall School were of the highest quality and negotiated for disused and overgrown playing fields nearby to be brought back into use with new changing facilities. All these facilities will be available for community use once built.

And in Immingham, our negotiations with Tesco over their proposed development got them to commit to providing a new and improved replacement five-a-side artificial grass pitch at another site.

These are just three of the many cases on which Sport England is consulted each year, where our negotiations secure a better deal for local community sport.

If we're going to create a lasting mass participation legacy from London 2012, it's vital that the places where people play sport are protected and improved. 2011 is going to be an exciting year for sport. Not just because the London Games will be tantalisingly close.

Sport England will be launching a range of new programmes to help local communities grasp London 2012 and make sure the benefits are felt in their area – part of the mass participation legacy the Games will leave.

This includes improving and protecting much-loved playing fields. That's only the first step though; it is by ensuring playing fields continue to play a key role in community sport that generations to come will be able to develop a life-long sporting habit.

Charles Johnston is director of property at sport england.