PLAYING FIELD: The 1937 act does not once mention sport

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Yes, South Holland District Council does own the Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field, but only because the Sir Halley Stewart Trust gave its predecessor the money to buy it. It is held in trust “to be used in perpetuity as a playing field ... for the benefit of the inhabitants” of Spalding.

Coun Worth attempts to defend the council’s policy of sports pitches and locked gates for the field, rather than open access, by claiming that “a playing field” means a sports field.

True, Collins English Dictionary defines a playing field as “a field or open space used for sport’” but that proves nothing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a field or piece of ground for playing in”. No support there.

What matters is how “playing field” was understood in the middle of the last century, when the trust deed was drawn up.

The King George Fields Foundation (1936) can help here. It stimulated the provision of nearly 500 council playing fields throughout the country before and after the war, and its trust deed defined a playing field as “any open space used for the purpose of outdoor games, sports and pastimes”. Pastimes clearly indicates more informal sorts of leisure activity.

Coun Worth is right to say that the Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field was set up to carry out the purposes of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937. That is, “the development of facilities for, and the encouragement of, physical training and recreation’”

From start to finish, however, the act does not contain a single mention of sport. The phrase used is “exercise and recreation” – an all-embracing phrase if ever there was one.

It seems clear, therefore, that the Sir Halley Stewart Trust’s intention was to provide the inhabitants of Spalding with a facility a good deal wider in scope than the current narrow sports interpretation permits.

As for saying that making the field available for hire is opening it to the inhabitants of Spalding, it does rather depend on the charges, etc. Otherwise it’s like saying that anyone can dine at the Ritz.

The Charity Commission’s position is clear: “The requirements for use (of the field) appear complicated and onerous... which may mean that many groups will not have the resources or logistical capacity to comply. Many groups and individuals in Spalding will not, in practice, have access to this field... because the requirements (which are designed for big events) are too onerous. Access is possible, but it is restricted”.

Interestingly, the Spalding Guardian was making virtually the same point back in 1951, when the council announced its scale of charges before it had even signed the trust deed: “It must be remembered that a field given for the benefit of the town can hardly be for the benefit of every section of the sporting community if any one section finds the charge for its use excessive.”

In short, it is difficult to believe the council is carrying out the terms of the trust deed as intended.

In the same issue as Coun Worth’s letter, you report his receipt of a report on the field from the council’s legal team. I trust that the full report will be made immediately available so that he inhabitants of Spalding, may make up our own minds, rather than being expected to rely on excerpts, snap judgments and interpretations.

John Charlesworth