Thursday, 10 May 2012

Children's play sliding down the agenda

In the wake of cuts to local government budgets, play is sliding down the agenda in many London councils, a survey by London Play has revealed. In the past year over 70 per cent of London's local authorities have either cut play provision - or do not have any play budget left to cut. And there are fears that the worst is yet to come. 

As the scramble for primary school places highlights the rate of growth in London's young population, it has emerged that opportunities for play are becoming fewer and further between. Despite pupil numbers in the capital being predicted to rise by more than nine per cent over the next three years, play facilities are being downgraded and cut back.  Of the 22 councils which responded to the London Play survey, 10 had made cuts to their play services in the past 12 months. Perhaps more worryingly, six had no budget left to cut. Only one council was making modest expansions to its service.

Having slashed its play budget by a massive 66 per cent, Camden stands out as the borough making the biggest reductions. Yet it remains one of the biggest spenders on play in the capital, with a budget of £1.5m - which will now be used to commission play services from the voluntary sector. In comparison, six of the local authorities responding to the survey had no revenue budget for play at all.

Many authorities have worked hard to limit the impact of the cuts on frontline services, and in some cases have developed innovative solutions to enable them to continue to support play. Some play services are linking up and pooling resources with housing providers or other partners who through play are able to engage better with groups they might otherwise have found difficult to reach.

Others are increasing income-generating activities. For example, in Richmond, play workers are being paid to run sessions in schools; the funds raised will support more open access play in future. Richmond's play development manager Barbara Morton explains: "Whilst charging for play ranger services may be controversial, developing a business model has been crucial in order to sustain the service for the future and to continue to offer play provision for the children in the borough." More controversially still, others are exploring the possibility of charging for services, as in the well-publicised case of Wandsworth council and its Battersea Park Adventure Playground.

London Play chair Melian Mansfield commented: "At a time when the number of children in London is rising dramatically, play is being cut. Play is crucial for the health and development of both children and London's communities and these cuts will have a disproportionate effect on both. Councils need to recognise this and treat play as a priority.  All children need to have access to opportunities to play, especially out of doors."

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