Public play facilities have suffered huge cuts in the last 3 years. New data shows that spending by English local authorities fell by nearly 40 per cent between 2010 and 2013. Revenue spending has been even more badly hit, falling by over 60 per cent. As a result, almost one in three councils have closed at least one play facility.
This week’s Children and Young People Now has published an extensive four-page report (subscription only) on the cuts, using figures obtained from a freedom of information request submitted to all local authorities in England. [Update 14 Jan – see a summary of the CYP Now report here]. The following statistics give a flavour of the bleak picture painted in this report:
- Overall spending down from £67.9m in 2010/11 to £41.5m in 2013/4 (a 39% cut)
- Capital spending fell from £37.8m in 2010 to £18.8m in 2013 (a 50% cut)
- Revenue spending fell by £7.37m between 2010 and 2013 (a 61% cut)
- Of the 55 councils who employed playworkers, 32 had fewer staff than in 2010, and of these, 12 no longer had any play staff
- 48 councils had closed unstaffed play facilities since 2010 (31% of the total)
- The largest budget cuts were in Bradford (£1,179,433), Durham (£911,000) and Poole (£850,000)
However, some councils have bucked this trend and maintained expenditure, and in some cases even increased their budgets (especially capital budgets). The Children and Young People Now report describes how Islington Council has invested in the future of all 12 of its adventure playgrounds, working strategically and in partnership with the local community and voluntary sector.
Children and Young People Now asked me for my views on the figures. Here is my reaction, as published in the report:
“These figures show just how fast England is moving away from the previous government’s vision of outdoor play as an essential ingredient of a “good enough” childhood. The Play Strategy, launched in 2008, tapped into a shared (and cross-party) concern about children’s well-being. It recognised the intrinsic value of play and the benefits that good play opportunities bring to children, families and the wider community. It also accepted that central government had a lead role and invested widely in staffed and unstaffed facilities.
“Now, with local authority play budgets falling, provision closing in almost a third of councils and 15 per cent of staffed facilities closed since 2010, a growing number of children are being left with nowhere to play outdoors with their friends. Many will end up bored and stuck indoors – especially in disadvantaged areas, where parks, play areas and green spaces are often poor or nonexistent, and where local authorities have historically invested in staffed facilities.
“It could be argued that the picture might have been even worse, given the state of local authority finances and the lack of statutory underpinning for play provision. It is also intriguing that a few councils have bucked the trend and increased their budgets. Does this show that some local politicians have realised how much play facilities are valued?
“Outdoor play remains on the public policy agenda – just. The Department of Health has supported an initiative to promote sessional road closures to open up residential streets for play, while the Cabinet Office has funded a consortium of play projects led by Play England for work to promote volunteering and community action. But these initiatives in no way compensate for the decimation of local play facilities.
“It is hard to overstate the challenge now facing play advocates. Austerity is set to continue. The government remains largely uninterested, if not hostile. Its proposed new legal thresholds around antisocial behaviour are so low that even the police are worried that they will criminalise children for being children. To see a different approach, we only have to look just over the border. In Scotland, Northern Ireland and (especially) Wales, the devolved administrations are actively engaged in expanding children’s opportunities for play.
“But, even in England, there are signs of hope. The Wild Network, a growing coalition aimed at getting more children outdoors and into nature, could become a powerful force for change. The spread of parent-led street play projects shows a strong appetite for grassroots action. The challenge is to channel this positive energy into a coherent, effective alliance: one that can make the case to government, local authorities and the public that playing outdoors is a vital ingredient of every child’s life.”