If there is one thing that everyone agrees on, it is that children climbing trees is a good thing. Never mind the occasional scrape or bruise – that is all part of developing character. There is risk, but learning to understand and manage risk is part of learning how to survive. If anything it is the Conservatives who the most enthusiastic about tree climbing – and most scornful of the mollycoddling health and safety jobsworths. So the report that Wandsworth Council is imposing a prohibition on this has caused dismay.
The Council’s proposed Byelaws for Pleasure Grounds, Public Walks and Open Spaces declares:
“No person shall without reasonable excuse climb any wall or fence in or enclosing the ground, or any tree, or any barrier, railing, post or other structure.”
On kite-flying the document adds:
“No person shall fly any kite in such a manner as to cause danger or give reasonable grounds for annoyance to any other person.”
When it comes to cricket the proposed rules state:
“No person shall throw or strike a cricket ball with a bat except in a designated area for playing cricket.”
Here is the good news. The reality is that the children of Wandsworth will be able climb trees, fly kites, and play impromptu ball games just as they have in the past. This is because these rules will not be enforced. Or at least they will only be enforced with the discretion of the Parks Police who will apply common sense.
How do I know? It is because for years my local council, Hammersmith and Fulham, has had pretty much the same rules. The wording on tree climbing is identical. They were adopted in 2007. There was some local justification about concern that during the boat race people would climb trees to get a better view. “Good for them,” I vaguely remember thinking – but I voted through the changes along with everyone else. Mea culpa.
Yet our children still climb trees in our local parks. I suppose if my daughters had been asked by the constabulary for a “reasonable excuse” for their tree climbing they could have cited the endorsement of the National Trust. They could have referred to Adrian Voce, the director of Play England, and his injunction that without tree climbing they would be “ill equipped to deal with stressful or challenging situations they might encounter later in life.” Such responses might have been regarded as precocious. But the situation never arose. At no stage did the forces of officialdom challenge them.
We liberalised kite-flying in 2011 – but I am not aware of any kite-flying being penalised in our borough before then.
Hundreds of other councils have also copied and pasted the standardised wording from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – produced under the Labour Government as part of John Prescott’s bold agenda of “modernisation” and centralisation. A few amendments here and there. But usually the template has been accepted.
Cllr Jonathan Cook, the Deputy Leader of Wandsworth Council, says:
“This is about stopping anti social behaviour.
“For example, if you’ve got a 20-stone bloke who’s inebriated coming from a pub next to Battersea Park and he’s crashing round in a tree breaking branches then obviously we might have a word with him.
“But nobody in a million years is going to want to stop a child playing with a kite or messing about in a tree- that’s what childhood is about and what are parks are for.”
So that’s all fine? Not quite. Do we really need to rely on Lord Prescott for the wording? Is it really worth councils enduring ritual humiliation in the media so that his legacy can be honoured and upheld?
The existing rules in Wandsworth (which make for excellent reading incidentally with guidance on where you can wheel your bath-chair, “perambulator” and so forth) state that “no person shall commit any nuisance contrary to public decency and propriety.” So surely the “20-stone bloke who’s inebriated coming from a pub next to Battersea Park and he’s crashing round in a tree breaking branches” is already busted.
Rather than embracing the tyranny of group-think there should be a spirit of independence. Councillors should not rubber stamp rules that local bureaucrats have copied from national bureaucrats. Most importantly rules should not be passed when there is no intention of enforcing them. For instance 20 mph speed limits voted through by virtue signaling councillors are ignored by million of motorists every day – the police have made clear they will not enforce them. This just brings the rule of law into disrepute.
So councillors in Wandsworth should think again. But so should councillors in the rest of the country.