Ministers don’t know what they’re playing at

by Sally Bercow

As kids we played outside from dawn till dusk, often entirely unsupervised (“helicopter parents” hadn’t taken off in the 1970s). We lived right beside a wood (oh how exhilarating to shinny up a tree), at the top of a steep footpath (aaaagh – must remember that ride-ons don’t have brakes), next door but one to a garage (12 old car tyres an impressive castle make), in a village (personal knock-down-ginger record: 75 doors in under 30 minutes). We spent hours playing games in the local streets; days exploring the woods and fields; weeks running around having fun in the fresh air.

Now, as much as it would please my dear mum, for accuracy’s sake I mustn’t paint a picture of uninterrupted childhood bliss. And I’m certainly not normally one for nostalgia. On the contrary, my eyes roll wildly whenever ageing Tories look up from their Daily Mail to reminisce about a golden age that, to my mind, didn’t exist.

That said, though, it is indisputable that outdoor play opportunities for kids today are so much more limited than they used to be. No longer do the words of Dorothy Parker (“The best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant – and let the air out of their tyres”) ring true. Indeed, today a mere one in five children regularly plays outside in their neighbourhood.

A huge rise in car ownership and road traffic, (somewhat overplayed) fears of stranger-danger and neighbours’ (frequently unjustified) hostility and disapproval have helped to drive a generation of children indoors. Life-enhancing though satellite TV and computer games can be (in moderation at least), the complete reversal of play habits in little more than a generation is a crying shame. All the research underlines that outdoor play is essential to children’s health and well-being and an important part of their development. Play is good for children, good for families and good for communities – bringing people together, fostering community spirit and imbuing young people with a sense of belonging.

So what should politicians be doing to develop play? To give credit to the last Labour government (always a pleasure), although life may not always have been a bundle of laughs, they sure knew the importance of play. Indeed, in 2008, the then children’s secretary, Ed Balls, introduced the first-ever national play strategy (backed by £235 million of capital investment), which enabled local authorities to put children’s play at the heart of their communities. A plethora of exciting new play areas, parks and adventure playgrounds then promptly sprung up, others were renovated and overhauled, and thousands of children, families and communities up and down the country continue to reap the benefits every day.

Now you’d expect the current government to appreciate the importance of children’s play too – not least because the PM, his deputy and the education secretary all have young children. At first, the words were warm and wholesome: when Nick Clegg launched a ministerial taskforce last June to look at play he said:

“Every parent understands the importance of a secure environment for their children. Spaces where they can play, where they can feel completely free, where they can safely push their boundaries, learning and experimenting. We mustn’t accept our playgrounds being concreted over and our parks always being tucked out of public view”.

Yet despite the rhetoric, 28% was swiftly lopped off the average local authority’s funding for play areas (allocated under the “playbuilder” programme) in October’s comprehensive spending review. Aaaah, you say – but cuts do have to come somewhere. Very true – and it would be wholly unrealistic to argue that play services should be completely exempt, crucial though they are. But, on the other hand, the government is hitting play disproportionately hard; ministers clearly regard it as a soft target.

After all, not only has the government drastically cut funding for play, but they have also removed the ring-fencing – making it all too easy for local authorities to plunder budgets for play to spend elsewhere. So it remains to be seen how much money will actually find its way to play services. What’s more, the department of education will no longer “set expectations” for local authorities about how many play areas they should provide, nor do they need trouble themselves with monitoring or reporting. And, to top it all, the government is also ending its play contracts at the end of this month – so, as play England director, Adrian Voce, observes, there won’t be a national policy focus for children’s play for the first time in decades.

Aaah, but won’t the big society step in to develop and maintain playgrounds; to ensure they don’t fall into disrepair? Surely legions of volunteers are gagging to build and sustain new play sites? You don’t seriously doubt that people will rush to run play schemes in their free time do you? Come, come, cast off your cynicism. Surely you accept that the big society will create more child-friendly communities, where every neighbourhood has a variety of attractive, engaging and accessible spaces for children to play in?

Well perhaps it will – but only up to a point. Will the big society deliver the focus, intensity and range of top quality provision that communities across the land now enjoy? Of course it won’t. Funding makes a real difference and it is futile to deny it. Without doubt, social enterprise and volunteering schemes have an important role to play at local level but they are no substitute for a national perspective with the resources to back it. Past experience shows that when play services are left purely to local authorities, all too often there is no play strategy whatsoever. Praying at the altar of localism is all very well. But in practice this government, in preaching its gospel of localism, is simply shirking responsibility, turning a blind eye and accepting that, in many cash-strapped communities, nothing will be done.

So it’s up to us to stand up and fight for our children’s right to play outside; their right to be involved and accepted in their communities. This is a time for clarity and action from the Tory-Lib Dem government, not warm words and wishful thinking. What exactly is the status of Labour’s national play strategy? Has it died a quiet death, yet to be announced?  Is there a national-level government commitment to play at all? If so, what is it? The government must now set out its play policy. For make no mistake, unless action is taken the millions of children who rely on public play facilities will lose out for a generation.

Sally Bercow is a Labour activist, and a writer and broadcaster.

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2 Responses to “Ministers don’t know what they’re playing at”

  1. pete stapleton says:

    When I was a nipper in the golden age, we played in the streets, played in parks and played on the swings. I have no idea whether the Government at the time had a national play strategy. I think they just let us get on with doing what children do naturally.

  2. Peter Lunch says:

    Sorry, I stopped reading when I got to the words ‘Sally Bercow’

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