Archive | April, 2013

Experts agree more than ever – play is vital. But where is the policy case being made?

29 Apr

The Flourish Summit, organised by the Save Childhood Movement in London last weekend, presented an impressive array of writers, academics, researchers and practitioners, all talking about what the latest research tells us of the state of modern childhood, and how we should aim to improve it. Adrian Voce noticed a common theme…

There were psychologists and neurologists, psychiatrists and teachers, philosophers and kings (I made the last one up, but I did spot a Baroness!) With such a diverse collection of eminent thinkers at last weekend’s Flourish Summit, one might expect a wide range of different analyses and solutions. Yet there was a surprising degree of convergence around one major issue. And the word that came up over and over again was play. “Children aren’t getting enough of it and this is a serious problem”, was the almost universal theme throughout the two-day event.

Where next for play policy?

Where next for play policy?

The causes were slightly more controversial. The ubiquitous presence of electronic screens in children’s lives came in for serious condemnation from some, less from others. Poor planning, unfettered traffic, inequality, paranoid parenting and rapacious marketing all came in for their share of blame for the range of poor outcomes for Britain’s children. But over and over again the solutions were the same. After basic loving care and boundaries, what children from the earliest age need most is play, play and more (outdoor) play.

Support for street play

In spite of this, there were, sadly, no play academics as such on the programme. Tim Gill, once of the Children’s Play Council, spoke of the recent gains in rolling back an oppressively risk averse culture, especially in playground design, while Cath Prisk of Play England had some good news about government funding to support street play. But against these modest advances the repeated, often heartfelt calls from educationists and others for children to be given more time and more space for free, outdoor play – in and out of school and nursery – was the most striking thing about the event.

Many speakers roundly criticised education policy – not just the current government’s but longer-term trends in general, especially for the early years. This was perhaps unsurprising given the links that this movement has with the Open Eye campaign. Dr. Richard House, of the University of Winchester, an Open Eye founder, only half-jokingly called for a campaign of ‘principled non-compliance’ in the face of a government that has dismissed the importance of free play, saying ‘there is revolution in the air’. Others echoed the cry.

Even Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford Professor who has controversially linked excessive screen-time to ADHD and even autism, effectively called for a national play strategy saying, “it is not enough to try and restrict access to screens: we must create a more attractive alternative”. Now where have I heard that before?

Play Strategy

The Flourish Summit was like 2007 revisited. It was then that a similar list of the great and good from academia, politics and literature wrote to the Daily Telegraph demanding the government to act to protect shrinking childhoods and ‘let our children play’. The wave of support for action on play that swelled up around that time enabled us to amplify our case for a serious national play policy in England and for those campaigning for it to extend beyond the play movement. This gave us the extra momentum that took us all the way to the Play Strategy we had been campaigning for for nearly a decade and which, if it hadn’t been for the change of government, would now be into its sixth year.

The Play Strategy set out over twelve years to transform our public realm, making all neighbourhoods into child-friendly places, perceived to be safe by parents, seen as fit for play by children; and building a new generation of play areas and adventure playgrounds designed for children rather than the maintenance budget or the health and safety officer. These are just the kinds of response now being called for with even greater urgency by those best qualified to know the consequences of not acting.

Many other, non-governmental agencies have taken up the challenge since the plug was pulled. We heard yesterday from the National Trust, for example, whose Wild Network and Project Wild Thing are turning the flair of streetwise marketing ‘creatives’ to the task of selling the outdoors to children. Playing Out, conversely, is a grass roots parents’ movement aiming to help others to arrange regular play days in their own streets by the simple means of closing them off to traffic, which is not as easy as it sounds. Play England’s new Health funding will deservedly see resources going into helping this inspiring project to grow.

Making the case – again

There are many more examples. Providing for children’s play is a self-evident need for any community and the resourceful ones will always find a way to do it, whilst intelligent organisations like the NT will see their responsibility for it too. But the need for space – accessible, everyday, ideally natural space – for all children to play is so universal and so acute that only the government can really command the resources and marshal the sectors that need to respond sufficiently to have the impact that is needed. This government may not be interested in a play strategy, even of a different hue – certainly not one led by what used to be the Department for Children and is now very much the Department for Education – but the case for one is stronger than ever; and we are only two years away from an election.

The play movement, especially the playwork sector, which is facing decimation as the impact of austerity cuts swathes through local play services, is asking itself at the moment, “where do we go next, what do we need to do to protect play provision, to fight for playwork?”

The answer, if we believe space for play is a societal responsibility, must always be in policy. It’s way past time for the case to be made for a new Play Strategy.

Adrian Voce

The Save Childhood Movement is launching the first National Children’s Day on 15th May 



Thatcherism left little room for play – and it’s still with us

12 Apr
As Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher sought to diminish the role of the state in supporting the communities where children could play

Thatcherism diminishes the role of the state in supporting communities where children can play

Within Thatcher’s legacy of a help-yourself culture with “no such thing as society”, there is little room for play policy. This aspect of Thatcherism is alive and well in today’s government and speaking out, writes Adrian Voce, is the only rational response.

The death of Baroness Thatcher has given rise to more reflection, analysis and comment than that of any British politician since Churchill.  A major figure who changed the history of our country – some have called her the greatest peacetime Prime Minister since Gladstone – she was also one of the most divisive, and her capacity to polarise opinion is undiminished. For every tribute, there has been an indictment. She took no prisoners: you were either for or against her. To the Murdoch empire, she was a “symbol of liberty and strength”, to the Guardian “her legacy is public division, private selfishness and a culture of greed”.

I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about the need for our policy positions – the making of our case for play provision and playable space – to be non-aligned to any broad political ideology. Yet, within the UK children’s play movement there is a seemingly unquestioned consensus that Thatcher’s influence was, and is toxic. Many are openly celebrating her demise.  The New Labour years of Blair and Brown do not command a consensus of endorsement from play campaigners by any means, but Thatcherism is almost universally regarded as the antithesis of what we stand for.

Why is this so? What is it about wanting to provide for children’s right to play that so unequivocally sets us against the free-market economics and right wing politics of Thatcher’s conservatism?

More Ball Games?

Many aspects of the play agenda – greater freedom for children, a less risk-averse approach to provision and a return to more traditional “free-range” childhoods – are, at least superficially, highly sympathetic to modern British conservatism.  And so it was not just the Labour government that adopted play as a serious new policy area in the noughties. In 2007-8 – at the same time that the idea of a national play strategy was taking hold with a newly restructured Department for Children under Ed Balls – as director of Play England I was not only advising Balls’ team but also that of David Willets, the shadow minister who was drafting his party’s new child policy review. The resultant More Ball Games (which also had Tim Gill as an advisor) contained much that the play sector could welcome.

On closer examination, however, the document is revealed as opportunistic, cynical even. Keen to be seen to respond to the concerns about “shrinking childhoods” that had been part of the zeitgeist for a couple of years – from front page headlines in the Sun to academic letters to the Telegraph – the Tories, ahead of the emerging play policy being developed by Balls, were clearly aiming to steal the government’s thunder.

By calling for a return to traditional, “three-dimensional” (as opposed to screen-based) play, “everyday adventures” and “free-range childhoods”, they were tapping into growing concerns about the sedentary, indoor lives that were coming to be seen as a big factor in the childhood obesity epidemic, and much else besides. They also knew this would play well to their heartlands, resonating with the nostalgic idylls of middle England where children play conkers in leafy gardens, scrape their knees climbing trees and play out until dusk with not a Health and Safety regulation in sight.

In fact, More Ball Games proposed nothing material other than a review of Health and Safety law and a sideswipe at European standards for fixed equipment. If you believed the rhetoric, these favourite Tory whipping boys – regulation and Europe – were the real culprits, not the traffic, crime, commercial domination of planning or lack of investment in community play provision that the evidence suggested. When challenged at its launch about what more a Conservative Government would do about “battery-reared” children David Cameron let slip his party’s true position: this was not really the territory for central government. He would, instead, “free up” parents and local areas to respond in their own way.

Although Cameron, at that stage, fell short of describing play policy as symptomatic of the “nanny state” (he could hardly do anything else at the launch of what was the closest his party got to one), the message was clear. Responding to barriers to children’s play was part of the “big government” that he would be rolling back. And so it proved.

“Nanny State”

This laissez-faire strain of conservative thinking has always been there but had been held in check by the more patriarchal, One Nation Tories until the Thatcher revolution. It was the Iron Lady and her team who, if they did not coin it, certainly popularized the term “nanny state” as the antithesis of the unshackled free market economy in which there was “no such thing as society” (with the implication that there was scant need for much social policy). Dissenters were known as “wets” and did not last long in her government.

Contrast this with the Labour Government thinking that led eventually to the Play Strategy. Writing for the left-of centre think-tank, Compass in 2007, David Lammy, who as a culture minister had children’s play in his portfolio, was clear about “the limits of the market” in supporting children and families. Highlighting the UK’s poor showing (bottom) in that year’s UNICEF  child-wellbeing table of wealthy nations, he compared Britain to Holland (top), where the Home Zone concept was created and “free range” children were the norm. “We need to embed the concept of child friendly planning … within our own policies for the built environment and open spaces”, he said. “Children should be central to spatial planning principles and playable landscapes, not just the beneficiaries of the occasional playground”.

Compared to the similar rhetoric about conkers and climbing trees, here was the real difference between the main parties. Labour, recognising that even the children of affluent families are not independent players in the market but “need to have a real stake in the common spaces of their neighbourhoods”, would need the power of the state to calm the traffic, redesign public spaces and police the low level crime that was keeping children indoors. This thinking led quite logically to an ambitious ten-year strategy to create a playable, child-friendly public realm across England. The Conservative thinking, just as inevitably, led to the underwhelming policy breakthrough of a “High Level Statement” by the Health and Safety Executive about the value of risk-benefit assessments. Oh, and an abandonment of the Play Strategy and an end to ring-fenced funding for new provision.


This week, free play advocates shed no tears for Margaret Thatcher: because her government’s policies massively increased the economic inequality that still sees so many children growing up in poverty and play deprivation; because it was her regime that introduced market forces into public services, bringing to an end the culture of local authority grants on which so many adventure playgrounds and other community play projects had depended; and because her administration gave birth to the childcare industry which would subvert so much play provision to the needs of the economy.

More instinctively though, play advocates loathed and dreaded Thatcher because the notion of community – of “it takes a village to raise a child” – was not just alien to her: she was contemptuous of it. For most of us, a fighting response was the only civilized one.

Why this all matters more than 20 years after her departure from government, is that Thatcher may have gone but her legacy is alive and well. The Big Society pretext for Cameron and Osborne’s true mission to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’, like the good Thatcherites they are, has long since been thrown. A national children’s play policy of any substance has no hope with a government as keen to devolve, deregulate and dismantle as this one. The Lib Dems would have us believe they are a counterbalancing force, but as an illustration of how effectively, just ask what happened to the Task Force that Nick Clegg announced in 2010 “to find new solutions … to the need for spaces where children can play”, of which nothing has been heard since.

Common decency should give us pause – dancing on graves is not for us – but speaking out clearly against what Margaret Thatcher stood for, at a time when she is being lionised by her successors and canonised by the right wing press, is as important as ever.

Adrian Voce

We must circle the play wagons against this land grab – here’s how

5 Apr

Last year Adrian Voce worked with Islington Play Association on its project to secure land for adventure playgrounds in the inner London borough. Here, he describes the work and its outcome – and why finding such a solution to this issue has never been more important.

It is not just benefit recipients for whom 1 April dawned this year like the cruelest of jokes. As the Conservative-led coalition government ushers in a new era of unprecedented reductions in the role and capacity of the state to help those in need – a chilling landmark which many see as the end of the Welfare State as we know it – many millions of people who use or work in public or voluntary sector services are deeply anxious about what the future holds.

With more than 50 per cent of local authorities making cuts to, or outsourcing, children’s and youth services, following on from the ending of ring-fenced government funding for play in 2010, there is no doubt that the sector is suffering. Although a clear national picture is hard to find it is clear that play services and play spaces are taking a bigger hit than most.

In trying to resist these cuts most of the focus has naturally tended to fall on funding. It is for economic reasons that services are being closed and playgrounds torn down, with councils no longer believing they have the revenue to maintain them. Alternative business models, new funding sources and the potential of social enterprise schemes to help keep play projects open are the order of the day. Having enjoyed all too few days in the sun before the new government tore up the play strategy – and our hopes of a sustained period of growth with it – the sector now has to find new ways to fund itself.

But biting cuts to local authority budgets are not the only effect of the coalition government’s mission to shrink the role of the state that will impact on play provision. Indeed one new policy change effective from 1 April has a potentially longer-term and even more seriously harmful effect on the nation’s children than the funding drought (which will, we have to hope, ultimately come to an end).

“This change is forever”

Simon Jenkins has written in the Guardian about the new National Planning Policy Framework, the slim-line document published in March 2012, but effective from this week, designed to free up the planning system in favour of “sustainable development”. Replacing a comprehensive range (over 1000 pages) of planning policy statements and guidance with a mere 50, Jenkins believes that the document, originally intended to simplify and clarify an overcomplicated and opaque system, was greatly influenced by “the developer lobby hijacking an important but emotive policy on housing” and that “its purpose is (now) brutally simple: to release for potential building the 60% of England’s land area that is unprotected countryside”.  Once implemented, he warns,  “this change is forever”.

Whilst the effect of this drastic new approach may be most visibly on the countryside, the massive easing up of planning regulations in favour of development also makes more vulnerable those pockets of land in towns and cities which may currently be in community use. Commonly without proper deeds of title or secure long-term-term leases, community projects like adventure playgrounds are therefore not only at risk from the squeeze on local authority revenue budgets, but from newly liberated developers, who will see easy pickings in many local authorities’ community land portfolios, just as the councils themselves will be under pressure to realise their assets. Add to the mix the fact that many have yet to produce the local plans required of them under the Localism Bill and we are looking at a perfect storm for community play. Adventure playgrounds, because they mostly occupy sizeable inner city sites, are particularly at risk.

Islington Play Association (IPA), in the north inner-London borough with the least open space – and the most adventure playgrounds – of any local authority area in the country, has found a solution.

Deed of Dedication

In June 2012 the local charity, then celebrating 40 years of supporting community play provision, especially the voluntary managed adventure playgrounds in the borough, announced that the council had adopted a new legal instrument known as a Deed of Dedication for each of Islington’s 12 adventure playgrounds. Appended to the land title documents and therefore applicable to all leasehold agreements, the deed defines a restricted – or “dedicated” – use for the land, in this case children’s free adventure play, and prevents any other use being made of it “in perpetuity”, without the consent of all parties.

Islington children's adventure playgrounds  are now legally safeguarded "in perpetuity".

Islington children’s adventure playgrounds are now legally safeguarded “in perpetuity”. Photo: IPA

The dedication is safeguarded by assigning its custody to a third party – in this case Fields in Trust (formerly the National Playing Fields Association), whose written consent is required before the land can be used for any other purpose. Thus, whatever arrangements may evolve (or dissolve) between the landholder (the council) and the leaseholder (the service provider), the adventure playgrounds must remain as such. Fields in Trust has no interest in the title other than safeguarding the dedicated use. As a charity of over 100 years standing, Fields in Trust offers the playgrounds a safe pair of hands.

IPA was keenly aware of the growing threat to the treasured adventure playgrounds from the dire economic circumstances and the pressure on land in such a crowded and upwardly mobile part of inner London. With funding from the City Bridge Trust, it had researched the issue for two years – first looking at the feasibility of the council being persuaded to invoke community asset transfer powers to move the land into a bespoke community land trust, but eventually settling for this less cumbersome solution.

One immediate consequence was that IPA was left free to bid for, and win a new service provider contract for the voluntary managed playgrounds, as it announced in February. Becoming a Play Land Trust would have meant it taking on landlord status for the playground sites, thus potentially ruling it out of also becoming the service provider. With the council determined to find a single provider, compared to the several small and unsustainable voluntary management committees that were in place, this itself was a good result: the voluntary organisation with the best experience of, and closest ties to the adventure playgrounds is now running them.

Desirable assets

The longer-term consequence is even more important. Because Islington’s adventure playgrounds no longer occupy prime real estate in one of the most desirable parts of the capital – the assets being now effectively devalued by the highly restrictive deeds – they are doubly protected for play for the foreseeable future. This should make long-term leases much easier to negotiate and ambitious fundraising plans, capital grants or social enterprise business models more achievable: an elegant and very timely outcome, just as the coalition government’s love of burning “red-tape” would otherwise have given the green-light to businesses for whom children’s right to play is an inconvenient irrelevance.

Adrian Voce

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