John Woodcock: We’ll fight for bowling

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WHEN the Commonwealth Games come to Scotland this summer, they will introduce many thousands of people to the joys of lawn bowls. Hopefully, some will go on to join the 400,000 people across Britain, of every age and background,

who play the sport. The health benefits alone of bowling, ensuring that people stay both physically, mentally and socially active, must run into millions of pounds worth of treatment that the NHS doesn’t have to provide.

Bowling is a growing sport. But there is a shadow hanging over far too many of our bowling greens, which I spoke about in a Commons debate this week, setting out a charter that could help save Britain’s greens – including some of Edinburgh’s threatened bowling clubs, if Scottish ministers showed the way to their Westminster counterparts and adopted the proposals.

The threat is of closure, neglect or being torn up by bulldozers. Bowlers being kept off their greens by owners using dastardly tactics to smooth the path for sell-offs for housing. The scale of the threat to Britain’s greens was first brought to my attention when local bowlers came to see me shortly after I was first elected. Seven greens in my Cumbrian constituency had closed down and there were fears more would follow. In one case, bowlers turned up for practice to find the gates to the green padlocked and the electricity and water for the clubhouse turned off. The owners of the struggling social club it was attached to were seeking to prove that the green was unused so it could be sold off for development. My local bowlers asked if I could help – and as I am a former Sheffield youth leagues player, they were pushing at an open door. While I sadly didn’t manage to play the sport while in Edinburgh to study, I was shocked to learn of council plans to close half of its already depleted stock of greens as government cuts bite.

When I first raised the subject of green closures in the Commons in 2011, the response from across Britain was astonishing. Stories poured in of greens that had closed or were under threat, active clubs forced to close and of keen bowlers left with nowhere to play. Every time a green closes, at least four in ten of those who bowled there leave the sport, undermining its future.

Without specific action to protect bowling, the steady drip of green closures will continue – bad for the players, bad for their communities and bad for the sport’s sustainability. I have launched the Labour bowlers’ charter setting out four steps that could really turn the tide for Britain’s bowling greens.

Firstly, we need to stop councils from designating a bowling green as being “surplus to requirements” where it is in use, unless there is a vote of the bowlers using it to allow that designation to go ahead.

Secondly, owners need to be stopped from locking bowlers out of their greens. Where an owner has taken such steps to falsely prove a green is unused, they should not be able to obtain planning permission for development on the green.

Thirdly, a community right-to-buy could be transformatory – providing a statutory right for bowlers to purchase their green, at the value of the land as a sporting facility, not at the vastly inflated cost of the housing value of the land.

And fourthly, there needs to be more help to assist bowlers in setting up co-operatives and mutuals to buy and run their clubs, making player-ownership of greens far easier and more achievable.

These are simple steps and they could end the slow cull of Britain’s bowling greens. Ministers at Holyrood should consider policies such as these, or face the spectacle of greens closing across Scotland even while the Commonwealth’s eyes are on the sporting action at Kelvingrove Lawn Bowls Centre.

• John Woodcock is MP for Barrow In Furness, a keen bowler and former Edinburgh University student