Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Not everyone has easy access to public open spaces. Since 2009, pressure has grown to use alternatives and there are now 500 streets across the country regularly closed to allow children to indulge in organised play: learning to ride a bike, play football and hopscotch, simply having fun in a way which small town gardens don’t permit. Parents, grandparents and neighbours not only help and encourage, but enjoy socialising with each other, sharing refreshments and information, including advice on the best local tradesmen whilst also engaging with older or disabled residents who may otherwise be lonely or need help.
As these schemes gained momentum, it soon became clear that Playing Out contributes to social cohesion, which the best councillors work so hard to foster. A University of Bristol study also found that children are up to five times more active during Playing Out sessions, which could help tackle childhood obesity, and growing incidents of diabetes in young people.
Starting in Bristol after three years negotiating with the council, which was initially concerned about insurance liabilities, the idea was based on the premise that if roads could be closed for parties celebrating special events, why not for children to play.
Excluding bus routes and main roads, Playing Out means closing a street for up to three hours a week, with residents acting as stewards to allow others to drive in and park safely.
The Sunday Times reports that, “if councils have a policy for street play, permission should be granted in six weeks, otherwise it can take a long time”.
So, how many councils are willing to embrace the idea, with strategies to promote and manage such a programme? Given the evidence, and the obvious benefits across neighbourhoods, which go beyond play, surely they should be developing appropriate plans. In particular, policies could be expanded to recognise the unique traffic pressures around schools, especially primaries.
In appropriate locations, the same principles could apply: road closures at certain times during term time would be hugely beneficial – not least to children’s safety.
With schools usually located in built-up areas, this inevitably means that the vast majority of primary children are delivered by car, even if they live within easy walking or cycling distance, resulting in bottlenecks, inconsiderate parking blocking residents’ drives and frustration, leading to bad-tempered exchanges at peak times.
At the primary school on a big council estate in Ipswich where I am a governor, we are in the final stage of expansion to three-form entry from this September, which means 660 children, including a large SEN cohort, nursery, as well as a hearing and sight impaired unit. The main entrance is located on a short narrow (two way) residential road but pedestrians and cyclists are encouraged to use a rear access; both are monitored by caretakers, and other members of staff, including the Head and his Deputies, who encourage parents to stop for a chat in the playground.
Given the wider issues around children’s safety, including drug gangs now operating in the town, governors have taken a robust approach to improving site security, with new fencing installed during the summer holidays. Since the school is listed, this required firm negotiations with the planners.
In addition to the volumes of parents’ and carers’ vehicles blocking the road and excluded from the site for safety reasons, we have a number of taxis bringing and collecting disabled children, and those from out of catchment, requiring access right up to the reception area. Teachers also need access to limited on site parking.
When resources are available, the Safer Neighbourhood Team endeavours to control double parking which virtually blocks the road, and Parking Services are also regularly present, but have been reluctant to issue tickets. However, the Police have now been clear that, from next term, they will not tolerate parking abuse at a secondary school on the edge of town, and it is hoped the same approach can be adopted at our primary. Parking Services have been asked to enforce the rules, issuing tickets, and appropriate advice will be put on the website.
Nevertheless, these measures are unlikely to bring permanent improvements. Teachers, governors, parents – and residents – think it is time to close the road at peak times (as is the case at a primary in the village of Capel St. Mary, outside Ipswich). Initial approaches to the County Council resulted in a suggestion that “the road is made one-way on a voluntary basis with the agreement of all parties”.
Next term, this will be tried as we review the Travel Plan again, and launch a ‘Keep us Safe’ campaign designed and led by the children. But, our aim over the coming months is for road closure before a child is harmed by a distracted driver in a hurry.
How much easier it would be if a proactive policy could be adopted by the Council.