Parents and play experts are turning to crowdfunding to rebuild and maintain playgrounds as cash-strapped local authorities cut their budgets across England.
Harriet Grant www.theguardian.com
Despite calls by child development experts for a “summer of play” for children as the pandemic ends, there is a funding crisis across all parts of the play sector – from park playgrounds to new spaces built by housing developers.
In Coggeshall, Essex, Jemma Green and her neighbours got the idea for crowdfunding their playground from others. “It’s incredibly common now. We have got £110,000 and nearly all of that has come from fundraising. The parish council saved for two years to give us £30,000 – we are lucky they could do that. And we had £25,000 from Enovert, a local landfill company. But all our other grant applications were turned down – National Lottery, things like that.
“It’s very expensive work. Our playground was over 30 years old and it was half-empty most of the time – but without this fundraising we just wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”
The Association of Play Industries (API) has warned of a continued decline in the funding of park playgrounds. Using freedom of information requests it found that since 2014 347 playgrounds have been shut down across England. For those that survive, the API estimates there will be a decrease in spending of over £13m a year on average.
Mark Hardy, who chairs the API, says: “The steady decline in funding started during austerity but what is worrying now is that in the last 18 months or so funding is not going back to normal. Play is not a statutory provision and local authorities have a lot of priorities.”
He says that while larger “destination” playgrounds do sometimes still get funding, many local spaces are in effect abandoned.
“Neighbourhood playgrounds are becoming rather sad things. We need doorstep play, particularly in deprived areas.
“The issue is far more acute at parish council level. Unitary authorities or towns might have funding but it doesn’t reach the very local level. We lose pocket parks, swings, sandpits. And it’s not just capital. The big issue is often maintenance.”
Another pressing issue in many communities is the need to update playgrounds that go unused because of what locals say are unappealing designs.
Louise Whitley and Sarina da Silva made headlines two years ago when they spoke out against a segregated playground at the Baylis Old School development in south London. Now they are campaigning again, this time for funding for the play area built next to the social housing on the site.
“The playground is poor quality. Nobody has used it much since the development was built. It’s always empty,” says Da Silva. “It has a very dirty flooring that you wouldn’t want a toddler on, and basic equipment that would not entertain any child for even a few minutes.”
The original developers, Henley Homes, say the upkeep is now the responsibility of Guinness, which manages the social housing. Guinness says it is willing to help maintain the playground or support efforts by the community to fundraise for structural changes.
But Whitley says the quality of play areas should be more of a priority when they are built.
“Developers are building huge amounts of housing and community space with it across the country. They build sites with promises of being family friendly but despite lovely artists’ impressions the reality after planning permission is given is very different.
“We are left looking for ways to replace them with equipment children actually want to use.”
Many of her local playspaces need help. Just across the road is the Lollard Street adventure playground, built in 1955 on the philosophy of risky play.
On a sunny day as the Easter holidays start, director Adrian Voce is welcoming back children from nearby tower blocks after the long lockdown. There is a happy buzz in the air as children leap across the site on ropes and clamber up huge wooden structures. But this much-loved space is at risk of closing.
“It’s pretty bleak. We have enough money left for a year, digging into reserves,” Voce says. “After that, if more money doesn’t start coming in, we will have to close. I’ve been turned down for seven grants in a row in the past few weeks, including the mayor of London’s Covid recovery fund. In all the years I’ve worked in play it’s never been this bad.
“People think, ‘Oh play, that happens anywhere,’ but actually it’s about the space. Children need space where they aren’t in the way of cars or adults.”
Some adventure play sites have turned to crowdfunding, but Voce says this isn’t always ideal. “What we really need is long-term investment for staff and maintenance.”
Over lockdown people have used parks and local spaces more than ever. But the need for play investment comes at a time when parks are struggling for funds more widely.
In parliament last month, the housing minister Luke Hall confirmed parks and green spaces received £16m between 2017 and 2019.
Anita Grant, head of the charity Play England, points out how little this is. “£16m over three years on 27,000 parks is £200 per park. The abysmal funding of parks right now means the degradation of the play areas will continue and get worse.”
Grant manages adventure play spaces in Islington, north London, that have been promised 15 years of funding in what she says is an “amazing” commitment from the council. But she worries that in this atmosphere children are not going to be prioritised.
“What children need and benefit from is often inconvenient to adults. It’s messy, noisy, they want to take risks, but even when there is money it goes on railings and pathways, not children and their play.”