Advocating for play at the crossroads (part 1)

5 May

With election fever running high, there are suddenly many and various asks for new play policy. In this first of a two-part blog for General Election week, Adrian Voce considers the impact of government cuts on the play movement’s capacity to advocate for change.


Coalition cuts have turned the play movement on its head. Photo: Mick Conway.

You wait five years for a case to be made for government play policy; then, like the London buses of popular metaphor, several come along at once. There must be a general election. Or perhaps the damage inflicted since the last one has been so deep, it has taken this long for the play movement to regroup.

In the five years since the Conservative-led Coalition Government not only abandoned the Play Strategy within a fortnight of taking office, but then divested itself, for the first time since the 1980s, of any responsibility for children’s play whatsoever[1], calls for government action on play in England have been muted in the extreme. Until now: during the run-up to this week’s poll – one which many are calling a crossroads in British political and social history – there has been a flurry of campaigning activity by a variety of play sector groupings.

The Children’s Play Policy Forum (CPPF), the Association of Play Industries (API), the Playwork Conference in Eastbourne and, most recently, the playwork journal, iP-Dip, have each set out their different ‘asks’, hoping to influence the parties vying for power in what seems sure to be the closest-run election for decades.

Add to this list the letter to 3000 candidates from an ad hoc group that came together on Facebook, and it would seem that the national play movement has started to find its voice again. Of course there have been many valiant local battles against closures, such as the one to defend Stonebridge Adventure Playground in Brent, but without serious support, from either politicians or a diminished national sector, the results have in most cases been all too predictable.

“the plethora of advocacy for government action on play is a welcome sign that there is still life in the movement”

Leaving aside, for now, the merits or otherwise of the different proposals now published, the sudden plethora of advocacy for government action on play is a welcome sign that there is still life in the movement after a lengthy period when it has seemed all but moribund as a force for change. The problem, of course, is that the voice is actually several voices, each asking for different things from whichever party – or, more likely, combination of parties – will form the next government.

Of course, there is no reason why everyone demanding a better deal for children when it comes to public support for their play should have the same view of how to achieve it, or what it would look like. Play is a famously ambiguous thing and the ‘play sector’ is no more homogenous than any other. A diversity of views and objectives is as desirable as it is inevitable.

However, as one of our most important political champions, Chris Smith famously exhorted us in the early days of the New Labour Government, if we want policymakers to listen and respond we have to build a consensus around what it is we are asking for: ‘to speak with one voice’. Subsequent events proved this to be no pretext for inaction, and no empty promise either. It was Smith’s pledge of lottery funding for play – widely seen as his response to the sector’s efforts to collaborate around key areas, including policy – that paved the way for the Labour government’s (eventually) serious commitment to play, represented in the Play Strategy (2008).

Since those heady days, the play movement’s influencing activity has been massively reduced, its effectiveness hugely diminished; for the same obvious reason that we now have such a disparate set of proposals. In 2010-11 a government set on radically reducing the size and role of the state first introduced an emergency budget, then made a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and didn’t mind too much what it threw on, as long as is it helped to reduce departmental budgets. Swathes of national support and development infrastructure for whole areas of public life were dismantled almost overnight. Never mind if that work was being done by charities on behalf of children and those who work with them for little or no reward. By the end of that first period of Coalition cuts, there was no government play policy for England, and no play infrastructure.

“By the end of that first period of cuts there was no government play policy for England, and no play infrastructure”.

Far from the ‘efficiency-savings’ that small-state idealogues pretend is the only outcome of scrapping what they like to characterise as ‘wasteful bureaucracy’, dismantling the support and development infrastructure for an under-developed area of public life – like how society responds to children’s right to play in the face of big social and environmental changes that constrain and inhibit it – doesn’t just leave it under-developed; it makes effective advocacy for progress much harder too.

A properly resourced network, with capacity for research, consultation and debate, means policy ideas can be developed in a rigorous, evidenced way. It also brings different perspectives together to find the common ground that can translate into cohesive proposals, not just underpinned by good arguments but also supported by those working in the field. This is vitally important to any government considering new policy; not for altruistic reasons of wanting to reward democratic process, but because it needs to know that the ‘delivery chain’ will be reliable; the policy workable because it is supported by those needing to make it work.

We should not berate ourselves that this time around consensus appears to have eluded us. It is not cynical to suppose that the cancellation of national support contracts for policy areas like play was, in fact, for this very purpose. The difference that such ‘savings’ make to government finances, which are calculated in tens of billions, is negligible. A better reason to axe the funding for the Children’s Play Information Service (NCB), the Playwork Development Strategy (Skillsactive), and especially the play policy and research work undertaken by CPC and then Play England since 2000  – minor contracts in government terms, but invaluable national development work in terms of building the capacity for change – was precisely that it would make effective advocacy for new policy much harder. One only has to consider the effect of the Lobbying Act on charities’ capacity to influence the political process to realise that the outgoing government hates voluntary sector pressure groups as much as it claims to loathe quangos[2].

“not even Labour has a spending plan to reverse cuts that have seen a reduction of at least 52 per cent in local play budgets since 2009-10″

In reality, it does not matter too much that the calls for government action on play in the next Parliament have been so disunited. By the time anyone in government is ready to listen again, the ‘asks’, as well as many of the pledges of this campaign will be long forgotten. So successful has the Coalition been in peddling its version of the economic crisis that ushered it into office, it is now more or less accepted wisdom – even in the face of authoritative testimony to the contrary – that the financial crash was caused not by reckless lending and esoteric, high-risk trading by international banks, but by the excessive public spending of the Labour government. In the face of the dreaded charge of fiscal imprudence, not even Labour has a spending plan to reverse any time soon the draconian cuts that have seen a reduction of at least[3] 52 per cent in local play budgets since 2009-10 (CRAE, 2014). Neither do any of the parties include play in their manifesto commitments.

So, is all lost for play policy, whoever may be leading the Government this time next week? Not quite.

(To be continued)

Adrian Voce

Part 2 of this blog, tomorrow, will consider the prospects for play policy under each of the two possible leading parties of the next government.

References and footnotes

Children’s Rights Alliance for England (2014), State Of Children’s Rights In England: Review of Government action on United Nations’ recommendations for strengthening children’s rights in the UK. London: Children’s Rights Alliance for England.

[1] In June 2010, as well as cancelling Play Strategy work in England, the Government also withdrew from the smaller national contracts for play, which had been in place in various forms since 1982. For a short time it considered taking play policy forward within the ‘Big Society’ context (see Nick Clegg’s speech that same month) and Play England was re-commissioned (at a much reduced level) to explore the potential for this, but the Comprehensive Spending Review of October 2010 ruled out any further government interest.

[2] In fact, like every government, this one has found itself dependent on the work of specialist public bodies and has not been able to make its bonfire as high as it wished.

[3] This figure is derived from responses by only 32 of 152 local authorities issued with a Freedom of Information request by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. It is reasonable to assume that those LAs unable to comply with the request may have made even greater cuts to their play budgets (and therefore lacked even the capacity to respond).

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