Did we get too close, not to Labour, but to the Coalition?

15 Nov

Adrian Voce responds to Jan Cosgrove’s comment on the Policy in Play media statement of 8 November.

Jan Cosgrove’s very thorough comment – and Fair Play’s dogged research that informs it – deserves, I think, a full reply from me in turn and so here goes.

I think we have to be careful not to take the current government policy (or lack of it, as far as play is concerned) personally, as it were. My view is that we have fallen victim to a general trend towards decentralization, coupled, of course, with the overriding imperative, as the government sees it, to reduce public spending at a rate never seen before. The early deficit reduction measures announced in June last year included many other cuts. However, it is also true that, in their media briefings at the time, ministerial aides did single out the play strategy for particular scorn as an example of New Labour’s (and Ed Balls’ in particular) ‘nanny-state’ excesses (it’s funny, isn’t it, how the political party whose members would have most enjoyed the benefits of having a nanny now use the role as a metaphor for a negatively over-weaning approach to government, but I digress…)

The Conservatives are confused about play. Their policy review in 2008, More Ball Games – to which both Tim Gill and Play England were advisors – majored on it and Cameron himself has cited Play England surveys to bemoan the lack of ‘everyday adventures’ for today’s children. But the report was noticeably short on policy substance, other than a proposed revision of Health and Safety legislation (addressed since the election by the Young Review). Even at the time Cameron was clear that he did not see much of a role for central government. Cameron’s big idea, let’s not forget, was launched with the slogan “Small Government: Big Society”.

This brings me to an observation on the response Jan Cosgrove received to his Freedom of Information request. It is not strictly accurate to say that Play England’s “two contracts were renegotiated into a single, merged contract with a reduced budget to reflect the reduced monitoring role of the organisation”.

Firstly, the contracts weren’t renegotiated, they were terminated (with no adherence, I might add, to the Voluntary Sector Compact that is supposed to guide government agencies in such circumstances). We then negotiated a new one at a much-reduced level. This is perhaps to split hairs, but the more pertinent point is that the new contract was not merely for a reduced version of our role under the Labour government. It was an entirely new contract with a new set of aims and outputs: essentially to support a small number of areas to adjust to the new era and develop ‘Big Society’ forms of sustaining provision so that these could be disseminated and learned from. (This was all done through the Engaging Communities in Play programme, which had its own website of resources for “Playful Communities” and was written up by Paul Greatorex in the report, Creating Playful Communities)

This is an important point for two reasons.

Firstly, Play England has been accused, not least by the Big Lottery Fund, who backed away from their earlier promise of ‘a green light’ for further funding for play once there was a change of government (ironic, given the Coalition’s pledge to make it completely independent of government…), of not being nimble enough to respond to the new policy agenda and thereby secure a role with the new government beyond 2011. The Engaging Communities in Play work shows this to be untrue. Play England was to my knowledge the first, and still one of the very few third sector organisations to have jointly published a policy document – certainly one about a non-school issue – with Michael Gove’s ‘back to basics’ Department for Education.

Following on from our influencing activity with the Tories over a number of years (I spoke at their main party conference in 2007, we had substantial input to More Ball Games, and Tim Loughton spoke very promisingly at the launch of People Make Play in March 2010) I think the way that we reframed our support and development role under this new contract gives the lie to the view that Play England was too close to Labour and paid the price.

However, the second, more important point about Play England’s work for the Coalition Government from July 2010 to March 2011 is that it raises the difficult question of how close we should get to government in general; and on what terms.

Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, knowing now that the Engaging Communities in Play contract led not to an ongoing, albeit smaller and differently focused version of the play strategy, as we had hoped, but to a sudden halt to more than 30 years of national play policy, we may have thought twice before signing.

The aim of working with government is of course to influence its policy or, having successfully done so, to help deliver policy objectives. Now that this has evidently been in vain with the Coalition, at least in the short term, there is an uncomfortable feeling. Did we collude in what was actually the most damaging period of national government for children’s play in decades? Should we have demanded policy commitments before entering into this new partnership?

These are not easy questions to answer. Hindsight is a fine thing and others will have more objective views on all this than I. But as Play England repositions itself – as it surely must – to lead the long march to an unforeseeable policy summit once again, it as a question that we – and Play England in particular – must be willing to honestly consider.

Adrian Voce

15 November 2011

PS Jan’s sympathy for me personally, whilst appreciated, is really unnecessary. I was fortunate enough to occupy the crease while the sun was shining, the sky was blue and there was hay to be made. Whatever else I do in my career, I have the memory of hitting some glorious sixes and the knowledge that these untutored slogs, nevertheless made a difference.

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