New data has revealed Scottish councils have sold off more than 100 football pitches since 2010, prompting criticism of cuts to local government.
The figures, which were obtained by the GMB union under freedom of information laws, showed huge differences in the number of football pitches sold off by different councils and the number of pitches they now have.
The union said the sell-offs are a result of the Scottish Government’s “slash and burn” approach to council funding.
Health experts say cutting recreational space will lead to people being less active and increase healthcare costs in future.
The breakdown of the data shows that the majority of pitches sold off in Scotland were disposed of by West Lothian Council. It sold off 63 of its 203 football pitches.
The biggest percentage sell off was by Dumfries and Galloway Council. The council only had ten council owned pitches in 2009-10 and had sold eight of these off by 2017-18 – leaving just two such pitches for its 150,000 residents.
Scottish councils receive 85 per cent of their funding from Scottish Government which receives the bulk of its funding from the UK government.
West Lothian Council’s budget was cut by £4.7 million in 2019-20, prompting the council’s executive to call for a “fair funding settlement” from the Scottish Government.
On top of this, Cosla said that demands on Scottish local authority budgets have been increasing as more people need services like adult social care or welfare advice.
As the population gets older, councils must spend more on adult social care. Spending has gone up by 6.3 per cent since 2010-11 but this has not been enough to keep up with increased needs, Cosla said.
The demands for support and advice on welfare are also growing, Cosla said. Between 2015-16 and 2016-17, the number of people seeking advice rose by five per cent while spending on advice was cut by five per cent.
Cosla said that councils needed 2.6 per cent more funds in real terms in 2019-20 than they did in 2018-19. This was equivalent to a £255 million increase.
On top of this, the Scottish Government has committed to fund new policies which cost around £325 million. This includes the expansion of early learning and childcare, the extension of free personal care to the over-65s and the employment of more school nurses and and counsellors.
If these commitments aren’t matched by an increase in funding, savings would have to be made elsewhere by councils, Cosla said.
As well as selling off football pitches, councils have reduced their spending on street cleaning by 30 per cent.
Council pitches are often sold to property developers to raise funds to spend on other council services.
Dumfries and Galloway Council sold three playing fields to the Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership for £715,000. The fields were used by the Dumfries Hunters American football team and local children and, after a backlash, the housing partnership sold the fields back to the council.
In October 2018, the Scottish Government backtracked on plans to allow councils to sell off school playing fields and install synthetic pitches instead.
NHS Scotland is trying to promote exercise as a way of reducing obesity and diabetes. It says physical inactivity leads to nearly 2,500 deaths in Scotland each year and just 63 per cent of adults and 76 per cent of children do the recommended amount of exercise.
Recreational space and playing fields are a vital piece of the jigsaw to keep the nation active, healthy and happy. Nanette Mutrie, University of Edinburgh
The sell-offs were criticised by the chair of physical activity for health at the University of Edinburgh, Nanette Mutrie.
“Any reduction in recreational space is a mistake in the long run,” she told The Ferret, adding people being more active increases quality of life, reduces healthcare costs in the future and ensures a healthier population.
Professor Mutrie said that it was ironic that councils feel they have to sell off playing fields to fund care for the ageing population. She said that maintaining activity for the middle-aged now will reduce the need for spending on them as they enter old age.
“Recreational space and playing fields are a vital piece of the jigsaw to keep the nation active, healthy and happy,” she argued.
Tim Roache, GMB General Secretary, said: “Losing more than 100 council footy pitches in Scotland shows what the government’s slash and burn approach to local government means in reality. Councils are struggling to fund the basics and keep the show on the road.”
He added: “Scotland women’s national team is about to head in to its first ever World Cup, while the men are hoping to qualify for Euro 2020, inspired by their captain Andy Robertson who just lifted the Champions league with Liverpool. Just contrast that with this sorry state of affairs at the grassroots, where opportunities for the next generation of players are being trashed.”
Councils in England and Wales have also been selling off their football pitches. Former West Ham striker, Leroy Rosenior, said in a statement: “It’s a national tragedy that fewer and fewer kids will have a place to play as a result of short-sighted cuts, putting efforts to open football up to more youngsters and develop diverse, welcoming and healthy sporting communities in jeopardy.”
“Selling off pitches reduces the number of open and inclusive arenas where young footballers can grow and develop,” he added.
The Scottish Government pointed out it had invested in sport initiatives in communities and schools. Sportscotland had invested £168 million in sports facilities since 2007 while the CashBack for Communities programme had invested more than £11.3 million seized from criminals in new sporting facilities.
“We continue to ensure that our partners in local government receive a fair funding settlement, despite further cuts to the Scottish budget from the UK Government,” a Scottish Government spokesperson said.
“We are delivering a funding package of £11.2 billion for local authorities this year, which is a real-terms increase in both revenue (1.2 per cent) and capital funding (21.5 per cent) compared to the previous year.”
Cosla, West Lothian Council and Dumfries and Galloway Council have been asked to comment.