UK planning policy mainly fails children, but London, Wales and Scotland begin to show the way

18 Sep

This summer’s publication of the Mayor of London’s proposed revisions to the London Plan was welcomed by advocates who have been pushing for a stronger policy on children and young people’s play, recreation, and independent mobility. Wider reaction to this part of the Plan, including from the UK government, signaled the ongoing influence of the capital; but will national policy follow suit?

The London Plan’s already relatively progressive approach to children and young people’s play and recreation is now to be further improved: to recognise their need for a wider range of spaces and opportunities; to ensure play areas offer real play value, with elements of risk and challenge designed in rather than out; and to afford greater independent mobility for children and young people, to break out of the sedentary, screen-based lifestyles that have become commonplace in the digital era.


The revised plan will retain innovative supplementary planning guidance first introduced in 2005-6, with its qualitative standards, and minimum spatial requirement of 10 sqm per child for play areas in new developments. Also retained is the recommendation that London boroughs should work across departments to coordinate area-wide play strategies: the approach that was adopted in England, by the UK government, for the world’s first national play strategy (2008).

Most eye-catching of all, however, certainly as far as media observers are concerned, the draft London Plan now specifies that play areas ‘should not be segregated by tenure’. This is a clear response to the worrying incidence of children from social housing being excluded from communal play areas in mixed developments.

Announcing the change, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, told the Guardian, “It is disgraceful that children who live in the same development would ever be prevented from playing together … The policies in my draft new London Plan are absolutely clear that new developments should be inclusive to all”.

Examination in public

Those of us who gave evidence at the London Plan’s Examination in Public may feel some gratification that our efforts on this occasion have received a positive response, but the real credit for this bold stance by the Mayor should more deservingly go to Louise Whitely, the parent of young children at the Old Baylis School development in south London, who  campaigned alongside her friends and neighbours for two years, to force the estate managers to honour the developers’ description of a ‘child-friendly’ estate; and Harriet Grant, the freelance journalist who brought the story to national attention via the Guardian, when a wall was erected to keep children from the social housing units out of the communal play space.

This was a narrative that captured public attention, highlighting a clear injustice in relatable, human-interest, terms, compelling policymakers to act; and not just in London. James Brokenshire, the (soon to be ex-) Communities Secretary, added the Government’s support for “planning and national rules that are there are properly upheld … (to end) segregation because of the nature of the home you live in”. It will now be up to his successor, Robert Jenrick, to deliver on that pledge.

Advocating for children’s rights in the built environment is challenging in the UK, where the absence of full adoption into UK (or Scots) law of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) means there is no statutory basis for rights-respecting policy. This is despite it being ratified by the government in 1991.

New research

But what does a more in-depth analysis tell us about UK planning policy and children’s rights? New research by Jenny Wood, of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and the Mayor’s design champion, architect Dinah Bornat, is assessing exactly that. While the full report is not due until the Autumn, the early findings seem to confirm the sense that children are most notable in national planning policy across the UK by their absence.

When mentioning them at all, planning documents most often refer to children either in the context of a list of protected minorities (usually in advice notes or documents with a lower standing in the hierarchy of planning than main policy documents), or as a kind of appendage to the default adult population, as in ‘people with children’, as though children do not have their own agency or distinct needs.

The research indicates that in recent years, of the four UK nations, Wales has had the most child-friendly planning policy. Whilst the assertions in the above paragraph still hold true for Wales, the latest Planning Policy Wales (PPW) was released in December 2018, and now aligns with the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act, 2015, to embrace the concept that people-centred placemaking is a route to wellbeing. Children’s rights also form the basis of child-focused legislation in Wales, including a duty on local authorities to assess and develop plans for a sufficiency of play opportunities for all children. With appropriate ‘linking-up’ of all these policy areas and faithful implementation, Wales has the greatest potential for child-friendly planning at present.

Play sufficiency

Current Scottish policy has been less child-friendly than in Wales and takes a predominantly economic focus. However, the recently completed stage 3 of the Planning (Scotland) Bill, includes measures that will give the most protection to children as a specific group of any national planning system. This should be through a statutory right to participate in the process of developing local development plans, and through planning authorities being required to produce ‘Play Sufficiency Assessments’ (emulating Wales). Child-specific legislation in Scotland is similar to that in Wales but currently weaker. However, the Scottish Government is currently consulting on how to integrate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots Law.

Seeking recognition for children’s rights within English planning policy has seemed particularly difficult since the abandonment of extensive government guidance in 2010-11, which had begun to prioritise children and young people’s need for more space as part of its long-term strategy to reverse the trend towards ‘battery-reared children’. Many practitioners believe the development imperative of the slimline National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) overrides design issues, to the detriment of the young, especially in the lower socio-economic groups. The research confirms that the NPPF is very weak on children as a specific group. Child-friendly aspirant local authorities have no national guidance for the task. Nevertheless, a number of English councils have embraced the concept, some with the UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative, some independently.

In Northern Ireland, there is presently little protection for children at the national planning policy level, but the Department for Environment in the process of looking at child friendly planning, and the Belfast Healthy Cities initiative has the longest standing child-friendly city approach of any UK city.

Cautious optimism

The UK clearly has a long way to go to integrate the UN’s Habitat declarations that children’s rights are a responsibility of both national and local government, and that the built environment has an important role to play. However, the London Plan revisions, the recent breakthrough in Scotland, the long experience of Belfast, and the progressive, rights-based approach to children’s play in Wales, each give grounds for cautious optimism.

A survey of 3,000 homeowners by the UK Green Building Council found that a neighbourhood where children can play outside was a bigger selling point than having a south-facing garden, or even the prospect of property value appreciation per se. Making  planning policy work for children and young people – shaping a built environment where they can gather and play equally, move around independently and enjoy the right to roam that older generations took for granted – is not only an obligation under of the UNCRC; it makes sound economic sense too.

Adrian Voce and Jenny Wood

Adrian Voce is president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities, and the author of Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right (Policy Press, 2015)

Jenny Wood is Co-founder and Chair of the Board at A Place in Childhood and a Research Associate in the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University.

Jenny Wood’s research with Dinah Bornat is funded by the Royal Town Planning Institute and will be published in the Autumn of 2019.

Adrian Voce, Jenny Wood, and Dinah Bornat will each be speaking at Towards the Child Friendly City: children’s rights in the built environment, a major conference in Bristol City Hall, on 27-29 November, 2019. Full details here


2 Responses to “UK planning policy mainly fails children, but London, Wales and Scotland begin to show the way”


  1. UK planning policy mainly fails children, but London, Wales and Scotland begin to show the way – Alliance for Childhood - 20 September 2019

    […] Read full blog post by Adrian Voce and Jenny Wood here. […]


  2. Join our co-founder Jenny for a special RTPI event - A Place in Childhood - 20 October 2020

    […] by The Architects Journal. Also reporting on the review were, I-SPHERE, Thinkhouse, Policy for Play and the Scottish Policy Research Exchange. The report has also been picked up by policymakers […]


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