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  • Writer's pictureThe Guardian

England’s playgrounds crumble as council budgets fall

Children suffering from ‘shameful’ failure to protect play with park budgets falling by £350m in 11 years.

Playgrounds around England are falling to pieces, missing large pieces of play equipment, or simply being locked up, as councils facing huge budget cuts struggle to maintain them. In some of the poorest parts of the country, family groups are warning that children face a summer spent indoors because of a lack of safe and free spaces to play.

The head of Play England has said that children’s mental health will suffer as a result, and has called for radical change from what he called a “shameful” lack of protection for children and play in planning.

A Guardian analysis of the collective annual park budget around England – which includes local authority play provision – has found that it has fallen by more than £350m, adjusted for inflation, since 2011.

In 2010-11, the three-year average spend on England’s parks and open spaces – including funding for national parks – stood at almost £1.4bn. But by 2021-22 (the most recent year for which full figures are available), that figure had dropped to just over £1bn in real terms.

The list of councils forced to cut their park budget by more than 40% is dominated by the North and the Midlands. Some councils – including Sunderland, Gloucester and Barnsley – have been forced to cut back by more than 80% since 2011.

However, activists point out that the situation is not uniformly bleak, with a new source of playground funding opening up via housebuilders, and some beautiful new playgrounds being built or planned around the country.

Mark Hardy, Chair of the Association of Play Industries, talks to councils across the country every week and said they were struggling.

“I am extremely sympathetic to local authorities. They are making genuinely difficult choices,” he said. He has seen a trend towards funding larger central play areas while abandoning smaller doorstep spaces. “We are certainly seeing a lot of neighbourhood, doorstep play spaces being neglected – that is just LAs juggling, making decisions. When I run training sessions on play, at the end the question every councillor asks is: where can we get more money for playgrounds?”

Eugene Minogue, the Chair of Play England, the national body promoting playgrounds and play, said: “A lot of people don’t understand how weak the planning system is concerning play provision. Look at Boris Johnson being stopped from [building] a swimming pool because of newts. There is no protection like this for children.

“Every local authority has a local plan and some key groups have to be consulted on this plan. Sport England, for example. But playgrounds fall through the crack there is nobody to speak for them. We at Play England would like to change that.

“Then you have the hollowing out of play within local authorities. It’s very rare now to find a competent play expert employed by a local authority. When I was a child we had play services run by the council – I then worked in these same services as an adult. In Westminster we had a play manager, and play workers, we ran three or four adventure playgrounds and many park spaces. These services have been decimated, they have all but disappeared.”

He said that under the current system, the playgrounds were the responsibility of a park team with a remit that included trees, cemeteries and litter.

“We need to change this. Play is the foundation of all human movement and it’s shameful where we are as a country now. We know that this summer children’s mental health will continue to suffer because of a lack of spaces to play.”

Guardian readers have reported playgrounds falling apart across the country – from missing zip wires and swings to broken water features.

Sarah Parker, who runs Play Out Hartlepool, said the situation there was dire. “In some playgrounds here over half of the play equipment has been damaged and either removed or left like that. And some homes in our town have no green space for play within half a kilometre – and there are no gardens.”

In Oxfordshire, Rebecca Matthews described a pattern of patchy provision. “Oxfordshire has some amazing new playgrounds but in our town, the playgrounds have not been invested in. Our local small park on our estate is shambolic and it’s in an area of high deprivation.”

Becca in Birmingham said: “Our local park has had a tyre swing missing for a year or more, the roundabout was welded last year so it no longer turns … and this park is still one of the best nearby.”

William Exley said: “Sheffield is great for its bigger playgrounds, but they’re spread out and hard to move between on foot. We stopped visiting small ones near us as they are spoiled by damaged equipment and lack of maintenance.”

In Brighton, the play became an electoral battleground in recent council elections. In one leafy part of the city, Labour campaigned with leaflets that said “Queen’s Park children deserve better,” over pictures of the crumbling local playground where shadows on the concrete show where equipment has been taken away. Labour took both seats in the ward, part of a shift from Green to Labour across Brighton.

A new play area is on its way, but children have now been without a proper playground since 2018. Emily, a mother of two, said her younger child had lost out on childhood play.

“It used to be such a lovely park. The zip wire went first then everything else, they took the best equipment away including a pirate ship and didn’t replace it. I was really sad my son didn’t have the same playground his big sister had to grow up in. I worried about where I could take him to play. I don’t go there now it’s unusable.”

The newly Labour-controlled Brighton council told the Guardian that it was refurbishing eight playgrounds across the city as part of a £3m programme being funded via section 106 from local developments for community and social infrastructure, the Housing Revenue Account and additional council funding.

“In total, 45 parks in Brighton and Hove are benefiting from the funding, with 23 parks already refurbished and being enjoyed by children and young people across the city,” the spokesperson said.

“We know from research back in 2019 that austerity was having a hugely negative impact on play provision and children’s well-being. Parents were reporting a decline in their children’s mental health and more sleep problems due to the hundreds of outdoor play areas closing across Britain.

“If the central government started restoring the 60p lost in every £1 of local authority grants, I doubt we’d be struggling to get this work done.”

Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Culture, Tourism and Sport board, said: “Financial challenges remain for local government, which leaves discretionary services such as for parks and leisure vulnerable. While one-off grants can help, ultimately it is long-term, consistent funding which will ensure councils can adequately plan and invest to improve facilities.

“Councils share the government’s aim in its disability action plan for the creation of more accessible playgrounds, but this needs to be supported by the necessary resources to improve and maintain existing facilities if we are to achieve this.”

But Hardy said that the picture was not uniformly bleak, as new homes were being built and housebuilders had to pay section 106 money towards local amenities, including play. “Some terrific playgrounds are being put in around the country right now – some funded with help from Section 106 money. You can do a lot if you have the money, we are seeing a move away from boring provision.

“My big ask is that we see that play is too important to leave to a local authority to juggle. There needs to be centralised funding. This government does not have a strategy for play. Scotland and Wales both have a play sufficiency duty but England does not.”

Where play is funded well, with money coming from sources other than councils, new and innovative spaces are being built.

In Manchester last year developers working in partnership with the public sector spent £23m creating a new park and playground.

The park – delivered by a partnership between LandsecU+I, Manchester city council, Transport for Greater Manchester and LCR, an arm of the government that develops railway assets – was funded by a government grant in collaboration with the Greater Manchester combined authority.

At Play England, Minogue said money from developers joined with real expertise can build play spaces that children love. “We recently built a playground at Paddington Rec in Westminster – the company who built it said they had never built anything as good for the public, only for paid-for sites like castles or theme parks.

The cost – £340,000 – was raised through the community infrastructure levy, which takes money from developers when they build new housing. Minogue said: “This shows the vital importance of ensuring playgrounds are part of national and local planning guidance.

“And best of all the children helped design it – they asked for a bandstand with Bluetooth speakers, which we built – and it is an incredibly popular playground.”

The analysis of park budgets was based on open spaces spending from local authority revenue outturn data published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (including play areas, nature corners and playing fields), on a rolling three-year average, adjusted for inflation.

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