By Michael Lavalette
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No space to play in Tory Britain

This article is over 6 years, 7 months old
Issue 409

A recently published report by the London School of Economics, Moving the Goalposts, looks at the impact of austerity and growing inequality on young people’s participation in sport and play activities. Not surprisingly, it makes grim reading.

Austerity has led to increasing levels of poverty in Britain and this is being felt particularly by the young. Overall there are 3.6 million children in the UK living in poverty. Nearly two thirds of them live in working households. Of the 9 million young people aged 14–24 in Britain approximately 30 percent are living in poverty. Poverty among 16-19 year olds is the highest of any age group with 21-24 year olds the second highest.

We know that poverty has a knock-on effect on all aspects of people’s lives. It is strongly related to poorer educational achievement, health problems, disability and worse social conditions. This report focuses on the impact of cuts on the more hidden aspects of young people’s lives — their access to play and sports facilities. Play is an important part of our development, and physical activity brings a range of benefits for our health and well-being. Yet play and sport require physical resources, appropriate funding and support networks to facilitate activities.

The report suggests that cuts, privatisation, regulation and marketisation are closing down the spaces young people have for sport and play. This is happening in numerous ways. First, as youth services have been severely cut there are fewer places for young people to go and take part in a range of regulated activities during evenings and weekends.

Youth and community workers have always played a vital role in supporting young people in some of the poorest parts of the country. Yet these services have been devastated under George Osborne’s austerity programmes. Second, the space available for children in our urban spaces is shrinking. Many of us will have used the streets as our playgrounds when we were younger. The street was a place to hang out and play games with friends. Much of this was completely unregulated — and all the more enjoyable for that! But now these spaces are dominated by much greater numbers of cars, by public order notices and restrictions on children’s activities.

Third, the report notes that the biggest barrier to young people engaging in sport, play and leisure activities is cost. Charges for leisure centres and sports facilities are increasing — often far outstripping inflation. When I was a councillor in Preston we fought to save free access to swimming pools and leisure centres for under 16s and those on benefits. But these concessions have almost uniformly disappeared. Those over the age of 18 are charged full adult rates. For those wanting to access a fitness class this means paying over £5 for a 45-minute class — beyond the means of poor families and those in low paid jobs.

When I was younger the local secondary school was used every evening for adult education and for sport and leisure activities. The report argues that more schools need to open up their facilities after school hours.

Finally, parks and open spaces have lost wardens and keepers who traditionally kept an eye on facilities and those coming to access services. Now, the report suggests, young people often fear the uncontrolled and contested spaces that parks can become. Making matters worse is the increasing encroachment on public spaces by privatised “pay-to-play” companies like Go Ape, as noted recently in the Observer. The Battersea adventure playground, for example, used to be available for children to climb, play and let off steam — all free, as you’d expect.

But a few weeks ago Go Ape opened for business on the site, offering climbing sessions for between £18 and £33 per child. The old adventure playground was bulldozed and replaced by an ordinary swings-and-slides park aimed at under-11s. This is part of a growing trend across the country whereby local councils look to sell off local parks and playgrounds to privatised “play providers”.

Parks are among the most used public facilities. It is estimated that 34 million people make regular visits to parks. According to a recent report by the Heritage Lottery Fund, 68 percent of park users consider spending time in their local park as important or essential to their quality of life. This rises to 71 percent in urban areas and 81 percent for those with children under 10.

Yet the Heritage Lottery Fund found that 45 percent of local authorities are considering selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management to private providers.

The depth of the cuts now unfolding is bringing about a world where parks, open space, leisure facilities and play spaces are increasingly out of the reach of many families in Britain. Leisure is being turned into the exclusive play thing of the rich.

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