In this recent interview with Play and Sports Matters magazine (reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers) Adrian Voce argues that the Government’s abandonment of the Play Strategy is a good reason for play professionals and advocates to redouble their efforts to make the case for play policy at every level.
Play England, the national charity for children’s play, was forced to downsize drastically last year after the government decided not to renew its national contracts after March 2011. Play England, and the Children’s Play Council (CPC) before it, had held a variety of government contracts since 1999. As director of Play England, Adrian Voce had the onerous task of rationalising the very organisation he’d established in 2006, to reflect its reduced circumstances.
Voce had led the successful campaign to secure £155m from the national lottery, which enabled the establishment of Play England to work with local authorities and their partners to plan strategically for more and better play provision across the country. He was also the government’s main advisor on the £235m Play Strategy, for which Play England became the national delivery partner, working with every local authority in England to create around 3,000 new play areas and 30 staffed adventure playgrounds as well as establishing new benchmarks for planning, design and risk management in children’s free play provision.
The cuts signaled a transition not only for Play England, but also for Voce, who after managing the restructuring stepped down from Play England as part of a wider restructuring by its parent body, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) – but not before making his feelings known. Speaking at an event to mark his departure, Voce accused the coalition government of betraying a generation of children by abandoning the 10-year play strategy and cutting every penny of national funding for play provision and play policy.
Six months on and Voce has just collected an OBE for services to children. He is still working in the field that he loves – advising play associations and local providers on how to sustain play provision without a national strategy – at the same time as continuing to make the case for a policy framework for play. Despite the difficulties facing the sector, he remains sanguine.
“Play policy was a rather unnecessary victim of the austerity measures. There had been no money pledged after 2011 anyway. Playbuilder finished in March 2011 and the remaining seven years of the Play Strategy wasn’t more government funding for playgrounds but about embedding play provision within local planning and commissioning; developing and strengthening play partnerships so that planners, police, parks and highways understood their role. Unfortunately, the ‘back to basics’ approach of Michael Gove at DfE has meant the government dropping play completely, at least for now” he says.
However, this is a sector that is used to operating without central funding. “The Play Strategy achieved some good things, but not as much as it should have, if a version of it had been retained. £235m is less than Sheffield’s education budget for one year. It’s not a huge amount of money compared to the scale of the need and therefore, in terms of impact, its not loss of funding but the reverse in the dismantling of the play policy framework that is the real blow. However, there was never much play policy before, and the play movement is resourceful; it will pick itself up and get going again,“ says Voce.
And, arguably, it is in a stronger position to do so. Play England may have suffered severe cuts but it is still three times larger than CPC was in 2006. It will become independent of NCB this year and has secured alternative funding – including a grant from the Cabinet Office to lead the “Free Time Consortium” which should, suggests Voce, help it to sow the seeds for a new government play policy. From its leading role over this period, Play England enjoys a much higher profile than CPC ever did. It has a good track record (until it was cut, the Play Strategy delivered) and connections into the heart of government.
Notwithstanding its change of fortunes under the coalition, Voce believes that if Play England can consolidate its constituents into a strong, engaged and unified membership, it will continue go from strength to strength, albeit on a more gradual trajectory than the roller coaster of the last six years. He hopes so anyway: “the play movement needs a strong, independent national champion and not to be so dependent on larger children’s charities who tend to support it only when the sun is shining, or put their own interpretation onto what we mean by good provision”, he says.
The wider sector, too, should be able to recover from the shock of austerity, thinks Voce. Largely thanks to Play England, which has worked closely with API and its members to produce a range of popular guidance documents, it has broadened its knowledge base, and has a better understanding of design, risk, maintenance, and participation, as well as more experience of local planning and commissioning practice.
Shaping public space
But the sector still has a long way to go, he says, particularly in helping to shape play areas in public space. “The industry needs to see itself as a contributor to the wider shape and nature of the public realm. I’d like to see it working more with architects, planners and landscapers – as well as play practitioners – to integrate great designs for play into our community spaces. Children need to be able to play in the streets, on their way to school and in the places where they live, not just in designated playgrounds.”
There are more examples of this blurring between playgrounds and public spaces in Europe, he says, where often the best play advocates hail not from the children’s sector, but rather from the planning and landscaping arenas. This is the case in Holland, where residential streets are more often designed to be shared equally by people and vehicles in shared spaces, where the car is no longer king and children can play out safely in their immediate neighbourhoods.
“The new Exhibition Road scheme in London is an example of this shared space concept, but we need this kind of project scaled down – home zones in all residential streets – if we are to get children playing outside the way they need to. The one thing that keeps kids inside more than anything else is traffic. Parked cars dominate our streets so there’s no space to play, and then there’s the real danger of fast moving vehicles,” says Voce.
He’d also like to see more playworkers and play rangers and a continuation of the regrowth of adventure playgrounds. Above all Voce wants a policy framework for all this to happen. “If we think play is important and a basic right for children, there needs to be space available for them to play in: public space. I just can’t see how that is ever going to happen with the increasing demands on space unless we have a policy framework,” he says.
The coalition government “completely washed its hands of play” last year, so it’s up to the sector to work together with allies to get play back on the national agenda. “Play is still considered a less important area, partly because children’s voices are ignored. So we have to stand up for them. As a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the state has a legal obligation to ensure children can play. Governments must be held to account for it.”
The sector has a fight on its hands, says Voce, who has launched his own campaign to remake the case for government action on play. The aim of www.policyforplay.com is to provide a resource and forum for anyone trying to promote, campaign for, develop or sustain policy for play at any level of government. “The government may have scrapped its play policy, but we’re not going to take that lying down.”
The fight goes on.
Editor, Play and Sports Matters