In advanced countries like Britain, we are in danger of allowing our children to grow up too quickly. But Christmas was a reminder that children are – well – children; they like to have fun and play. Play stimulates their imaginations and sociability, and helps them to learn unconsciously, whatever their age. It motivates them, and – most importantly – physical play keeps them fit and reduces obesity, whereas computer games and watching TV are very solitary, sedentary occupations which don’t develop the communication skills demanded by future employers.

Local authorities have a role in developing children, not just by providing outstanding schools, but also good sports and swimming facilities and play areas.

When I first became a councillor, I was catapulted onto the Executive with, amongst other things, responsibility for 1000 acres of parks and public open spaces, which included play areas.

Since I am a great believer in strategies, ensuring that investment meets need, I immediately initiated two internal reviews (no need for expensive consultants). Running in tandem, each identified serious neglect: in the most historic parks which would take time to address, and in play provision, which could be rectified more easily.

Quite simply, 25 years of Labour in Ipswich had resulted in poor play provision with decaying equipment, much of which had to be condemned because it didn’t comply with safety standards. Frankly, it was no loss, since it comprised a few rusty slides and roundabouts.

The only investment there had been, had been targeted to shore up support in a Labour ward where £350,000 was spent on building a small ‘community centre’ with adjacent play area; although fully staffed by three people, it never appeared to be open, and was costing the council taxpayer more than £250,000 a year to run. (We subsequently put this into a social enterprise run by local people with some initial grant funding, which proved a huge success.)

Within three months, we had done a complete play-site analysis and prioritised greatest need, without political preference, identifying a total budget and timescale. The Executive agreed the strategy to be implemented in phases, the first over three years. We started with schemes which could be delivered quickly with the least disruption so residents could see that the plan was serious and not just talk.

Consulting with communities, including local children and Safer Neighbourhood Teams, was an essential part of the plan. Tenders for an equipment provider and partner in designing appropriate schemes required full engagement, proving a challenge for some companies, but the winning bidder welcomed the idea as part of its own business development to win future contracts.  This meant that schemes were specifically tailored, with communities actually choosing the equipment they wanted, from climbing walls (a runaway winner) to forts. It also gave them ownership, preventing vandalism.

People power also meant that an officer’s proposal for a new play area (in a small car park close to a road) in one of the two most historic parks was roundly rejected.  Whereas the officer wanted to ‘protect the park’ from people, local residents rightly wanted something which would be a real benefit to the neighbourhood. The outcome was a £500,000 water-based scheme in the centre of the park where a paddling pool had previously been a popular attraction. Overnight, usage in this previously little-known but glorious wildlife space grew by 1,000 per cent. Well worth every penny.

Encouraged by the knowledge that they would be listened to, more residents around the town came forward to campaign for better provision in their own local open spaces, accelerating delivery by successfully fundraising for new or upgraded facilities and volunteering to help council staff maintain the grounds. Sometimes, teenagers merely wanted a place to hang out, so an open-sided shed with built-in seating was a quick win.

As part of the strategy, Section 106 demands for ‘play areas’, which usually consisted of a couple of unused rocking horses dotted around, were amended.  Instead, developers were asked to contribute funds to the nearest public open space, except for large new developments where proper play areas with a variety of equipment were required.

Why am I telling you this?

Local authorities don’t always recognise the value of play areas, especially when modern gardens are so much smaller than they were a couple of decades ago. For years, local residents in an expanding urban part of Suffolk have been pestering their local town council for an area of unused land close to their popular community centre to be turned into a play area. At last, agreement has been reached, but I hope it doesn’t take as long for it to be actually delivered.

Play areas aren’t just about keeping children happy. They add to quality of life as meeting places for parents, carers, grandparents – people who may otherwise feel lonely or stressed by all their responsibilities. Sharing concerns, advice and experiences is a comfort for adults, offering respite, and there’s always the opportunity for a good gossip as you watch children having lots of fun.

With pressures on council budgets, it would be a mistake to ignore all these benefits, and the importance of ‘people power’.

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