Segregated play space is an abuse of children’s rights

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Writing in the Guardian last month 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. The article relates how, in a new mixed development on the site of the old Lilian Baylis School in SE1, North Lambeth, children living in social housing are excluded from the supposedly ‘communal’ play areas, where access is exclusive to those from the privately-owned units.

The article has caused a media furore, with everyone from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to the Communities 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.

The BBC reported that Henley Housing, the developer, has said it ‘has no objection to residents in the social housing estate accessing all the play areas’; it was ‘leading the way’ to find a ‘workable solution’. This was later confirmed by Grant in a follow-up to her Guardian story. Warwick Estates, who manage the private part of the estate, however, were making no comment.

children’s play seems to have been largely conceived as a nuisance, to be policed.

It is striking from Grant’s original piece how a variety of key players (no pun intended) – 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 home-ownership status is wrong. And yet there it is. If they each think it’s wrong, who is responsible? Dinah Bornat says she is still trying to get to the bottom of it. There has even 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 children’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 (now it is in the media spotlight), the wider questions are: how common is this, and how can it be prevented? How can children’s right to play together in the common spaces of their immediate neighbourhoods – a feature of childhood as ancient as society itself, and 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 that would make such an occurrence ­– and the wider disregard for children’s rights in public space –much less likely in the future.

1. Reform national planning policy
As the retreat of children from public space became a growing cause of concern through the 90s 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 National 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. 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 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. 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 few developed-world governments not to have adopted the convention into national legislation, ranked a lowly 187th by the Kids Rights Index which monitors the degree of integration of children’s rights into national policy. This is why finding a viable legal challenge to this shameful decision may be harder than it ought to be.

4. Make London, and other conurbations, child-friendly cities
The UN’s Habitat conferences of the 90s highlighted the particular threats to the wellbeing 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. 15 years after City Hall hosted the second international child-friendly city conference, Sadiq Khan should formally commit the capital to becoming a genuine child-friendly city. His current London Plan revision is the perfect opportunity.

Adrian Voce

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