The Department of Health’s funding for Play England’s street play programme is a welcome recognition of a successful local initiative, but as a response to a national issue affecting millions of children, it can only scratch the surface, suggests Adrian Voce.
Play England and its partners have done well to secure funding to promote and support street play as part of the Department of Health’s physical activity initiative announced this week.
Playing Out, the grass roots project in Bristol, which has done so much to trail-blaze local activism for street closures so that children can play out on their doorsteps as previous generations did, is especially deserving of the funding that will allow it to consolidate and build its capacity to share its experience with other groups around the country.
The funding for London Play and Play England will hopefully allow those important strategic play agencies to cultivate greater influence with the government as well as providing much needed capacity after prolonged periods of contraction.
But, much as we are instinctively inclined to celebrate play organisations once again getting attention and resources from the national purse, praise for the government itself must be tempered by a serious rain check.
Firstly, £1.1m (or about £3,000 per local authority area) is truly a pittance for an initiative supposedly to address what many believe to be a national crisis in the making: the relentless contraction of children’s space and their freedom to enjoy it.
“such a small sum cannot be expected to do more than scratch the surface”
Even within the narrow objective of improving children’s health through increased physical activity, for a universal problem such as this, such a small sum cannot be expected to do more than scratch the surface. This might seem reasonable if this were a newly emerging issue, but the DH recognised it as far back as the last government’s Choosing Health White Paper of 2007, and academics have been citing the modern curtailment of children’s freedom to play out as a major factor in the childhood obesity epidemic since at least 2001. Compare this investment with the £300m announced for school sports earlier this year, let alone the £390m for play in England (including a lottery programme, pledged by the government) that came from the last Labour administration, and we get some idea of how seriously the coalition government has yet to take the issue.
Levels of funding for external partners are only one measure by which the government comes up short in its belated policy for play. Having abandoned, without undue ceremony, the ten-year Play Strategy after only two years, the coalition’s initial intentions to replace it with a more streamlined version, were torpedoed by Michael Gove’s determination to strip his department back to basics (i.e. schools) on the one hand and the Treasury’s cynicism, sorry, deficit reduction strategy, on the other. If its commitment to children’s play even partially matched some of it’s rhetoric over the years, this would not have been thrown on the bonfire with such indecent haste.
Firstly, the measures contained in the remaining years of the Play Strategy did not necessarily involve significant central government expenditure. There was no promise of a follow up capital build programme, and scrapping the other measures made a negligible difference to departmental budgets. This was a political, not an economic decision. In the “small state – big society” vision of David Cameron’s government, the Play Strategy was too obviously an example of the “nanny state”. That Ed Balls was its political architect made it an even easier target for George Osborne and his wrecking crew, but no one should be under any illusion that the Play Strategy was abandoned to save money.
“the play strategy was designed to ensure … that the built environment increasingly created playable space”.
What the Play Strategy set out to achieve in the long-term was two things. Firstly, it intended that, in the cycle of joint planning and commissioning of Children’s Trusts, local play strategies should be an integral part. The crosscutting Play Partnerships that had come together to plan the lottery and Playbuilder programmes were intended to remain in place, supported by ongoing training and professional development. Secondly, the play strategy was designed to ensure that play remained on the agenda, not just for spending decisions in local areas but within spatial development plans too, so that the built environment increasingly created playable space.
For this vital objective – local planning frameworks taking account of children’s play needs – local councils would get support from national planning policy, which, via revised Planning Policy Guidance, would now feature for the first time, children’s play as a priority for open and recreational space. This would have meant that, over time, we could have expected to see more and more master plans intelligently featuring play space and child-friendly design features like home zones, play streets and more playable open space; not just as an afterthought for Planning Gain, but as integral to concepts of the public realm.
“considerations of play provision and playable space (were to become) integral to local spending and local planning decisions”
In the likely absence of further central funding (especially after the financial crash of 2007-8), these twin objectives – ensuring that considerations of play provision and playable space became integral to local spending and local planning decisions – would nevertheless be focused in the minds of local policy makers by the inclusion of play provision in the National Indicator set. This was the set of measures by which local councils’ performance was measured against various Government Departmental objectives and, crucially, could thereby influence the level of treasury funding to which they were entitled. In the only year (2009-10) when the play indicator was applied, the almost 8 per cent increase nationally in children’s satisfaction with their local play offer, would have been sufficient motivation for many local authorities to prioritise play for many years after the Playbuilder funding had expired.
All these measures have of course been scrapped. National Planning Policy has been all but torn up in favour of “sustainable” development. Children’s services budgets, as so many others, are now subject to very few national indicators (the “target culture” that the government has characterized as the antithesis of local people making local decisions), let alone one that asks children how well and how often they are able to play out in public.
“England’s children need, if not a nanny state, then one that recognises the vital importance of their freedom to play”
Fair enough. The government is entitled to enact its own approach. That’s democracy. But children do not vote. We know they want to play out more and the overwhelming evidence suggests that not letting them is causing serious long-term harm. We may no longer be in the era of big government but England’s children need, if not a nanny state, then one that recognises the vital importance of their freedom to play and makes decisions about space and resources accordingly.
The creativity and tenacity of Play England and its partners will undoubtedly make this new funding go very much further than it has any right to; but they should not allow it to still the call for other forms of government action. On planning, traffic, policing, street design, routes to school, housing policy and in many other areas, there is a role for government in turning more of our streets and open spaces into places where children can play. The UN has made clear, by its General Comment on Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that national governments have a duty to both legislate for and finance whatever range of measures may be necessary to recognise, protect and promote children’s play.
Welcome as it is, the Department of Health’s initiative on its own is an inadequate response to that duty. It should be seen as just the start.