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Children’s Playgrounds

Volume 638: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of children's playgrounds.

Looking at the weather outside, I am sure hon. Members will have noticed that spring has now arrived, or is at least a little closer. Parents across the country are now hoping that they can finally get their children outdoors to run around and go to parks with friends, and to burn off some energy on the weekends and in the fantastic lighter evenings, in their local playgrounds, which is the topic of this debate. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to talk about this subject today.

Times are quite tough, as we know, and resources are squeezed. I want to raise in the debate today the pressures on the availability of local outdoor spaces and playground areas, which are declining at an alarming rate.

On that point, I want to raise the issue of the playground near Strand Street School in the East Marsh area of my constituency. It has fallen into significant disrepair, and a group of local mums, the East Marsh mums, is now pulling together and trying to raise the funds to establish a brand new playground. Seeking those funds is incredibly difficult; they are looking to lots of different community funding pots to try to raise that money. It will take a significant amount of money. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of the playground is an enormous loss to the children of the East Marsh area?

Yes. I know that my hon. Friend is a real campaigner for grassroots neighbourhood issues, and she will know the programme in question more than I do. I will come on to talk about what parents can do when faced with the retreat of the traditions of municipal provision, when they have little choice but to somehow find a voluntary alternative. It is very difficult and resources are quite scarce.

Parks are not just important for allowing children to let off steam. They also play a vital role in combating loneliness. Is the hon. Gentleman going to comment on that?

Indeed I am. One of the great things that we are all very nostalgic about from our own childhoods is communal open spaces, and facilities that are largely taken for granted and rarely discussed. Not just children gain enormously from the opportunity for outdoor exercise and socialisation; new parents get to meet other parents, and playgrounds help reduce isolation. They build new friendship networks for new mums and dads. It is a great watering hole for people to come together, meet and form new bonds in the community, particularly at a big life-changing moment.

Playgrounds are a great British tradition, mostly developed in the 20th century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charles Wicksteed’s playground equipment company near Kettering. When I mentioned to my eight-year-old daughter that I was leading this debate today, she encouraged me to call for more bars, because she is such a gymnastics enthusiastic who would go round and round on them all day long if she could, but playgrounds are also about sandboxes, swings, slides, climbing frames and roundabouts, and there are many other fantastic municipal facilities with even more exciting innovations—trampolines, paddling pools and all sorts of fantastic amenities.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate North East Lincolnshire’s Labour council on introducing a parkour facility at the Duke of York playground area, which introduced playgrounds to a whole new generation of young people? Unfortunately, we have seen that falling into disrepair, even though it was brought in only about four years ago. It was a really exciting initiative and my ten-year-old son absolutely loves playing there.

There are different fashions and trends in play, particularly in the younger teenage years. Skateboard parks were a particular thing a decade ago and trends change. In Nottingham, in my constituency, a new play area has just been installed in Shipstone Street, and Nottingham is trying its best to roll out more facilities. It has improved 75 play areas, with three more set for improvement works shortly, and the city has 54 Green Flag Awards, the greatest number in the country.

Resources are still an underlying problem. Since 2009, Nottingham has had to cut its parks and open spaces budget by £3 million, with a further £300,000 to be cut in the next financial year. Like a lot of local authorities, it has had to start looking elsewhere to plug that gap, looking for grants from other charities and funding bodies over the past 10 years. That is a story repeated across the country. For example, Knowsley Borough Council has had to make a decision to sell off some parks and green spaces, which is a real shame, as childhood obesity levels are very high in that part of the world. Other local authorities are being forced into similar choices—half of the councils in north-west England, according to a BBC report, are considering selling off parks or finding other organisations to maintain them over the next three years.

Nationally, we are just not replacing playgrounds at the same rate as they are disappearing. Some 92% of park managers report cuts to their budgets over the last three years, and research undertaken by the Association of Play Industries has uncovered a sharp decline in playgrounds across England: 214 playgrounds have been closed, with a further 234 playgrounds earmarked for closure by local authorities. That is 448 playgrounds closed or closing, which is an alarming downward trend in play provision. There is no longer dedicated funding for playgrounds from central Government, or grants from the third sector, so playground provision falls to local authorities, whose budgets are of course squeezed.

Play really does matter and it is worth underlining what to many of us might seem obvious. Playgrounds are one of the best ways of encouraging children to do physical activity. Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels. More than one fifth of reception children are overweight or obese; by year 6 that rises to over a third. Children living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese than those in more affluent areas. For many children, playgrounds represent the only chance to play outdoors. Children living within 1 km of a playground are five times more likely to be of a healthy weight than children who are not near a playground.

Play is fundamental to the wider wellbeing of children. If play is restricted, that is likely to have a profound effect on physical and mental health, now and into the future. There is a crisis in children’s mental health, with some reports saying that as many as 20% of children have some degree of mental illness and that problem might be rising. Without adequate access to play, children cannot develop the important emotional skills needed to protect them from anxiety and depression. Research from the charity Fields in Trust shows, for the first time at national level, a direct and statistically significant link between the availability of public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing.

That is why I called this debate today. We must not take playgrounds and play facilities for granted. We have to talk about them. This is an area of policy that could fall between the gaps. It was difficult even to decide whether I should target this debate at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so this is not owned as much as it should be.

I have four requests of the Minister, and I will be as specific as I can. The first is about resources. I do not like to bang on about money constantly because I know the situation is tight, but we should invest to save. Investing a pound in good play facilities now will yield better returns and savings for the health service and the education system in the long run. We cannot rely on developers’ section 106 contributions for new play facilities. They make a bit of a difference, but only in areas in which development is taking place.

On section 106 contributions, has the hon. Gentleman thought about using the powers in the neighbourhood planning regime to designate open and green spaces for that use?

I think that is absolutely vital. A lot of local authorities and councillors care about these issues and do exactly that. We gain from having open spaces for free-style play, but having structure in playground provision costs money, and we need to think about investing in such facilities.

If I were to ask for a sum of money from the Department, I would urge the Minister to think about what a mere £100 million could achieve. It would deliver 1,600 playgrounds and play spaces. That is the sort of level we are talking about to counter the downward trend in the statistics I mentioned earlier.

Secondly, children’s voices should be better represented as policies are developed. The parks and green spaces sector has not had a dedicated national voice or leadership in Government since the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was merged with the Design Council back in 2011, and the closure of the charity GreenSpace in 2013 was a great loss. The lack of a dedicated national leadership agency on this issue is holding back the development of children’s playgrounds, parks and open spaces. The Department set up the parks action group, but it does not focus specifically on children and the importance of play. I ask the Minister to think about how we can increase the representation of this issue in that forum.

The other day, the Minister and the Secretary of State launched the integrated communities strategy, which relates to how we can help communities to come together. We talked earlier about the social cohesion gains that could come from that. Although the “Integrated Communities Strategy” Green Paper mentioned bringing neighbourhoods together, it could have focused much more on play. I ask the Minister for parks to think about adding play to his portfolio to address the real threats that exists. Taking action to open up the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor play to the widest possible range of children from all backgrounds will make a real difference.

Thirdly, I ask the Minister to help us get more allies for the play sector. That is similar to my second ask of the Government. The Heritage Lottery Fund recently removed its “Parks for People” programme. It is one of the greatest ironies that, after the financial crisis, the lottery provided some of the most stable funding for community development, and we have relied on it for the past decade. That was the only dedicated parks restoration fund, and without it there is less opportunity to bid for grants.

Fourthly, I want to ask the Minister about the evidence and research he will need to arm him in his discussions with the rest of Government, with his Secretary of State and around the Cabinet table. We need to prove that every pound spent on children’s playgrounds will lead to great returns. Next month, the charity Fields in Trust will publish a report that shows that the value that lower socioeconomic groups place on parks and green spaces is higher than the national average. A reduction in the quantity and quality of those spaces may disproportionately affect those who need them most. This is not just about money. We need to gather that evidence together. The alarming statistics in the Association of Play Industries’ report, which I mentioned earlier, combined with the continued increase in child obesity, lead me to ask whether we can commission a deeper and more thorough report into the state of play facilities and open spaces across the entire United Kingdom. Research with a particular emphasis on the prevalence of obesity and other health issues in certain geographical areas will allow us to examine the correlations and help us to make more appropriate decisions about play policy.

I believe there is a strong correlation between higher instances of obesity and mental health issues in childhood, and the deprivation experienced by areas where free-play opportunities are limited or lacking. That is a significant challenge for public policy makers. A well-maintained and loved community play and recreation area fosters social cohesion, as hon. Members said, encourages children to be active and lifts the spirit and mood of the whole community. I hope the Minister agrees and helps to drive forward a renaissance in children’s play across the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) on securing this important debate. I enjoyed listening to him and thought he made a thoughtful contribution, as did the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell).

The breadth of my portfolio at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government means that I have the privilege of discussing a wide range of areas that affect people’s daily lives. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Nottingham East for raising the important issue of playgrounds. He spoke passionately about how such areas bring communities together and promote health, fitness and an appreciation of the outdoors. Like him, I am a father—I have two daughters—and I enjoy sports, so I recognise the value of having safe, welcoming, open public spaces.

Ensuring that playgrounds, parks and other open spaces are available and accessible is, in the first instance, the responsibly of individual local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman recognises. I want to say a few words about how my Department is supporting the sector in that area. I will touch on resources, which he rightly talked about, so I hope that will be of interest to him, and then I will draw on the work that is being done across Government. As he acknowledged, other Departments have a stake in this. I will bring their good work to the fore today.

On the issue of resources for local government, I would be the first to say that local authorities have done a commendable job over the past few years in delivering high-quality services, including adult social care and children’s services, and improving our roads, public spaces and playgrounds, in what has no doubt been a difficult financial climate. They should be commended for that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) on securing this really worthwhile debate. Will the Minister join me in commending South Gloucestershire Council, which announced in the past couple of weeks that it will invest £460,000 in green spaces, including a number of parks and playgrounds around Yate and Chipping Sodbury, which will make a huge difference to the community? I want to put on the record my thanks to two local campaigners, Sonia Williams and Matt Lewis, who have constantly raised the issue.

I would be delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend’s council. That is an example of communities working with their local authority, despite the difficult overall climate, to find creative solutions that will benefit the community. There are examples of that happening all over the country. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that example, and I congratulate all those involved in that positive outcome.

On resources for the sector overall, the recent local government finance settlement ensures that the sector will have £45.6 billion in the next financial year, rising from £44.3 billion in the financial year we are just finishing. Nottingham will have more than £500 million in core spending power over that spending review period, the last two years of which we are about to enter, and it will be for the council—whether in Nottingham or elsewhere—to decide how best to prioritise its resources among all the competing claims.

The settlement is the third year of a four-year deal, as I mentioned, and it was accepted by 97% of councils, including that of the hon. Member for Nottingham East. I am glad that they have benefited from the certainty and stability brought by knowledge of income over the medium term. That is something that local authorities have asked for. It allows them to think strategically. Indeed, in the hon. Gentleman’s area the Nottingham Open Space Forum, of which I know he is aware, is one such example of that longer term strategic thinking, and it highlights the point that local areas are best placed to decide how to use resources to promote the causes that their constituents care most about.

Is the Minister aware of the inquiry by the previous Communities and Local Government Committee, which I was part of? The public response in that inquiry was overwhelming—one of the biggest the Committee received for any inquiry it had undertaken. Is that a sign that parks should be much higher up the Government’s agenda?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work on that Committee. I read that report when I first got this job a few weeks ago. It was a very good report, and I hope that she is pleased to see that the Government responded very positively to its recommendations, through my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). I shall come on to those shortly, especially with regard to the parks action group and how we take forward the work recommended in the report.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East spoke a lot about children’s needs, and he is absolutely right to do so. There is more to do on tackling rising obesity levels and mental illness among our young people, but I am pleased that a great deal of activity is going on across Government in this area. We all want our children to be healthy and active, no matter their background, which is why it is important that we focus as a priority on what is happening in schools.

Having spoken to colleagues in the Department for Education, I am delighted to tell the Chamber that funding for the primary school PE and sport premium has doubled to £320 million a year from 2017. That will be a huge help in enabling schools to drive further improvements to sport provision. Furthermore, an extra £100 million has been promised to schools through the healthy pupils capital fund, which is a one-off fund provided from the soft drinks industry levy. That money will go to improving playgrounds and sports facilities across the school estate. Last week the Department for Education also announced the allocation of almost £1.5 billion in the forthcoming financial year to maintain and improve the condition of the education estate, including outdoor spaces.

As the hon. Gentleman noted, however, this is about much more than just funding. By making physical education a compulsory subject at all four key stages in the new national curriculum, the Government are helping to prioritise exercise and wellbeing. The positive experience of sport at a young age can create a lifelong habit of participation. It is important to foster that in young children. It is also important for our children to have role models whom they can look up to and who can inspire them to get fit and keep active. Darcy Bussell has spoken about that recently, and my constituent Sir Ian Botham has been a long-time advocate of children’s exercise, health and fitness.

The hon. Gentleman made the important point that there should be a voice for the parks and green spaces sector, a dedicated national voice to champion and advocate for it. He is aware of the parks action group established by my predecessor last year, and I would like to think that it is exactly that voice that the hon. Gentleman has called for. One of the points that I will take away from today is that we might need to shout a little louder about the important work of the parks action group. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) knows, that is one of the Select Committee recommendations that the Government acted on swiftly.

The action group draws on the expertise of a range of partners from the parks sector and a range of Departments. I will list some of those involved: the Association for Public Service Excellence, the Parks Alliance, Fields in Trust, the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, Keep Britain Tidy, Natural England, Groundwork, the National Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and bodies representing local and parish councils. I list them because I am especially pleased that such a wide range of organisations have committed their time and energy to work in partnership with the Government to raise the profile of the parks agenda.

I say to hon. Members present that I do not intend for the parks action group just to be a talking shop. It aims not only to take forward the recommendations of the Communities and Local Government Committee report from last year but to deal with wider issues facing the parks sector. The members represent the views of the local communities with whom they work and, through their contribution, we will ensure that all the issues that have surfaced today and many others are properly raised, represented and actioned.

The group will in the first instance identify effective and deliverable activities that can be undertaken to secure a better future for our green spaces for generations to come. It will focus on six immediate priorities for parks: standards, funding, vision and value of parks, empowering communities, knowledge and skills, and increasing usage. Those priorities pick up a number of the very pertinent points made by the hon. Gentleman.

I am very interested to hear about the action group, which is an important organisation, but I must emphasise again play and playgrounds—the need for structured physical facilities within the parks. If the Minister can ensure that that is part and parcel of one of those six objectives, I would feel a lot happier.

I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. I was about to come on to that, but he is right to raise it. I will ensure that a transcript of the debate, including his particular point about playgrounds and play, is given to all the members of the parks action group so that that is uppermost in their minds as they develop their work.

The action group will also explore how to improve equality of access across all ages and social groups. We all recognise that parks can play an important role in strengthening community cohesion, combating loneliness —my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made an important point there—and promoting integration between diverse groups. The hon. Member for Nottingham East made reference to the integrated communities strategy published last week, and that highlights how the use of shared areas, especially by young people, helps to bring communities and neighbourhoods together. As a Department, we will welcome views on the proposals in that Green Paper and we will engage with individuals, communities, businesses and faith groups to help deliver those specific proposals.

With regard to loneliness, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, I am a member of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which was set up in memory of Jo. The Prime Minister has championed this as a priority for her—there was a meeting only last week, in which we talked about the value of green spaces in combatting loneliness and about ensuring that open spaces feature heavily in the commission’s strategy.

The parks action group will also consider the various funding models that exist to support parks and green spaces, and it will share that information with the sector to support future sustainability. There are examples of innovation, particularly up in Newcastle and the north-east, which I am keen to visit reasonably soon to explore what is being done. I look forward to presenting an update to Parliament on the progress of the parks action group in due course. I encourage all Members to support its work.

When is the strategy group due to produce a report? I wonder how the parents of the Sixhills area of Great Grimsby will feel about the outcomes of that and how quickly they will start to see the results in their play area.

The parks action group has met recently, this year, and I am due to attend the next meeting. I cannot give the hon. Lady a specific timeline, but the Government have committed to report regularly to Parliament with updates. I hope we will give an update before the summer recess, but I have not yet had my first meeting so I am loth to make a firm commitment until I know about the work streams and plans of the action group. The Government have funded the group with £500,000, which I hope will leverage in extra funding from the various partners involved to promote the agenda that the group is keen to embrace.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East made another point about social deprivation. He is aware of the pocket parks programme, which the Department has run in the past, where £1 million helped in cases such as the one the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned. The programme helped to fund 87 small green spaces, including two in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham East, such as Frinton pocket park. That was a fantastic programme and I am looking to see what lessons we can learn from it, such as whether there is the possibility of replicating something similar in the future. It was brilliant at targeting money on areas with high social deprivation, removing those barriers to access.

I am conscious of time, but I hope that in the debate I have been able to demonstrate to the Chamber that the Government—not least me—are taking the subject seriously. With the parks action group, work is happening. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to put the issues front and forward on the agenda. I look forward to working with him and other Members to develop the green spaces that we all want our children to enjoy, not just today but for years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.