Excluding poorer children from playgrounds is social apartheid. Four distinct policy changes would stop this, writes Adrian Voce, president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities
Writing in The Guardian this week, Harriet Grant reports on what can only be described as a form of social apartheid in the design of a small housing estate in London. In a new mixed-tenure development on the site of the old Lilian Baylis School in SE1, north Lambeth, children living in social housing are excluded from the communal play areas, unlike children from the privately owned units.
The article has caused a media furore, with everyone from the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, decrying what architect Dinah Bornat, an expert on child-friendly housing, has called a shameful abuse of the planning process. Victoria Derbyshire’s daytime TV programme featured mums from each part of the estate, united in wanting all their children to be able to play together equally.
As of lunchtime today, the BBC was reporting that the developer Henley Homes has said it “has no objection to residents in the social housing estate accessing all the play areas” and was “leading the way” to find a “workable solution”. This was later confirmed by Grant in a follow-up to her Guardian story. The BBC reported that Warwick Estates, which manages the private part of the estate, however, are making no comment.
“If the designer, developer, council and mayor each think it’s wrong, then who is responsible?”
It is striking from Grant’s original piece how a variety of key players – the designer, the developer, the council, the mayor and the government – seem to agree (in the glare of media scrutiny anyway) that this segregation of children’s play space by homeownership status is wrong. And yet there it is. If they each think it is wrong, then who is responsible? Bornat, who uncovered the story, says she is still trying to get to the bottom of it. There has been talk of a possible legal challenge by some housing law specialists and children’s rights advocacy groups.
My correspondence, going back to June last year, from one of the parents at Baylis Old School, reveals that the segregation of the play area is in fact only the latest instalment in a running battle at this site between residents who understood from the marketing that they were moving into a genuinely child-friendly development, and the estate managers, for whom child’s play of any stripe seems to have been largely conceived as a nuisance to be policed.
“Whether or not a ‘workable solution’ can be found for the Baylis Old School development, the wider questions are: how common is this, and how can it be prevented?”
How can the right to play in the common space of their immediate neighbourhoods – believed by scientists to be a key to our evolution as a species – be better protected? Is this not a failure of public policy, wherein children’s right to play receives scant recognition, and no support, in defiance of various UN reports criticising the government for its dereliction?
I want to suggest four distinct policy measures to preserve children’s rights in public space.
1. Reform national planning policy
As the retreat of children from public space became a growing cause of concern through the 1990s and 2000s, so the need for a greater role for planning policy to provide guidance on children’s play space became more and more accepted, with major planning documents such as the first London Plan and the government’s Planning Policy Guidance 17 on recreational space, each highlighting the need for planners and developers to include children’s play within the overall concept and masterplan for any residential development.
At the time of the change of government in 2010, Play England had been commissioned to produce specific planning guidance that was to have been published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government). It never saw the light of day and, as everyone now knows, the entire suite of national planning policy documents was soon torn up and replaced by one slim volume. It seems clear that the National Planning Policy Framework is only fit for purpose if that purpose is to allow the concept and design of the public realm to be led by developers. Brought in at a time of perceived crisis for the economy, it is now surely time for a review.
2. Reinstate children’s play as a matter of government policy
Would Lambeth Council have allowed the developer at the Baylis Old School site to alter the plans and create a segregated play area if children’s play had been higher on their political radar? Perhaps, but it would have been less likely. When there was a secretary of state for children, with a serious national play policy, including a 10-year strategy and a £390m funding programme (including £155m of lottery money), local authorities were required to have a current local play strategy and play partnership, based squarely on principles and understandings about children’s right to play. Children’s play in England since 2010 has all but disappeared from the policy agenda other than as a tool for early learning and will continue to be neglected by cash-strapped local authorities until there is again some national leadership on the issue.
3. Adopt the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into UK law
It has been both heartening and a bit depressing to see the parents from both sides of this unwanted divide citing children’s right to play equally, as per the UNCRC, in their campaign to end this terrible practice. This is heartening, because we are often told there is not much appetite for children’s rights among the British public; the outpouring of sympathy for these children, and the stance of their parents suggests otherwise. Depressing because the UK (or, more particularly, the UK government, and therefore England) is one of the more reluctant signatories to the convention. The UK is one of the very few developed-world governments not to have adopted the convention into national legislation, ranked a lowly 187th by the KidsRights Index which monitors the degree of integration of children’s rights into national policy and legislation. This is why finding a viable legal challenge to this shameful decision may be harder than it ought to be.
4. Designate UK urban centres as Child Friendly Cities
The UN’s Habitat conferences of the 1990s highlighted the particular threats to the well-being of children and young people by increasing urbanisation, population growth and poor long-term planning by municipal government. UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative is designed to ensure that local authorities, regardless of national government policy, fully adopt and implement the UNCRC within all relevant policies and processes. Very few British councils have signed up for the UNICEF initiative – many citing austerity and the cost of the programme – but some, like Bristol, have nevertheless declared their commitment to being a child-friendly city and are developing plans and strategies accordingly.
A Child Friendly City is not just a city where child-friendly design principles are more widely adopted, but one where, as a cornerstone of the children’s rights ethos, these principles are applied equally to all children. Fifteen years after City Hall hosted the second international Child Friendly City conference, Sadiq Khan should formally commit the capital to becoming a recognised Child Friendly City. His current London Plan revision is the perfect opportunity.
As a playworker in the 1980s, I had the privilege of working at an adventure playground in the same part of London as the Baylis Old School development. Like all such places (now sadly diminishing in number), it had its own unique character and culture, reflecting that of the local children who used it. One abiding memory is of how proud they were, not just of the playground (which they helped to build), but of their ‘manor’: the social housing estates in the shadow of Waterloo Station. Applying for grants for our project from the various funding programmes for deprived inner-city areas was frequently met with their scorn. “We’re not deprived!” is one of their printable reactions.
In one very important regard these children were indeed far from deprived. The adventure playground, and the wider public spaces surrounding it, were theirs to explore from an early age. With no gardens of their own, children from as young as four would be outside on a daily basis, in groups of siblings and friends – playing, making friends, getting up to mischief, growing up. The adventure playground was their place, but in those (pre-childcare registration) days of open-access, ‘drop-in-drop-out’ attendance, the wider public space of their estates was also their domain.
These kids, like so many who grew up before the outdoor world had become a no-go area for them, had the richest of play lives: meaning they grew up learning the physical and social competence, self-confidence and resourcefulness that only comes from having time and space to play, away from adult direction, structures and rules; immersing themselves, daily, in their own culture and society; making decisions and taking risks for themselves. In so doing they also developed the ‘place attachment’ so important to identity and citizenship.
Like the parents at Baylis Old School today, the adults in the lives of those children in the north Lambeth of the 1980s – indeed society as a whole, even by benign neglect – understood the importance of their right to play. This right is for every child, regardless of where they live.