the rationale for regional play associations

3 Jan

There must be many small organisations in the voluntary sector that are facing issues of continuity and rationale for existence in this harsh economic climate. At the last meeting of Yorkshire Play (YP) I offered to remind my colleagues about the reasons why it was formed and subsequently it has occurred to me that this might have relevance to others who are in a similar position.

Yorkshire Play was actually made up from three separate strands. The Yorkshire Play Policy Forum, the Yorkshire Officers Group and the Regional office of SkillsActive. Clearly the Regional function of SkillsActive has been wound up and the Yorkshire Play Officers Group continues to meet separately as well as being represented in YP.

It is in this situation that YP, with no external funding, is looking at the rationale for continuation and I thought that the way in which the original forum came together might be of some relevance.

Back in the heady days of the early naughties, when Chris Smith had made his commitment of £200,000,000 for play, Tim Gill and Frank Dobson were asked , by the then Government to put together a funding strategy for NOF (now BLF of course). As part of that process he initiated a number of Regional consultations, excellently facilitated by Issy Cole-Hamilton, to obtain the views of the sector at a regional level.

One such consultation took place at Eureka, the National Children’s Museum in Halifax. At that time the zeitgeist of play policies was spreading across the land and a number of Play Officers in Local Authorities across Yorkshire were trying to embed policies within their own Authority.

It was a lonely endeavour in what felt like uncharted waters, so, not surprisingly, a number of officers came together at Eureka and identified a need to consult and support each other. They agreed to meet again and discuss their own particular progress, successes and problems, to share experience in order to help each other. This lead to the growth and expansion to include SkillsActive and the Yorkshire Play Officers Group, who continue to form an important part of the conversation along with the Commercial Sector.

I believe that the creation of the YPPF and the support and sharing of information did more to help develop policy in a non-coercive and sustainable way in Yorkshire than any other and that this need remains today. I agree that the situation is completely different;  I feel that today, play is polarised and isolated, even almost under siege. I do not believe that play policy, although important, should any more be the central plank of our campaign. I think that we could lower the bar and simply try to engage with Government and the Officers who work for Government. In doing this the role of Regional Associations and Play England should remain pivotal.


3 Responses to “the rationale for regional play associations”

  1. Dave Taylor January 3, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    “I do not believe that play policy, although important, should any more be the central plank of our campaign. I think that we could lower the bar and simply try to engage with Government and the Officers who work for Government.”

    I totally agree – and speaking from a Playwork NW perspective, I’d add the following:

    In austere times such as these, there are often tensions between representative/supporting bodies and the folk they are here to represent/support. Perhaps the bodies are seen to be hoovering up resources that the “grass roots” should have access too; maybe such bodies are struggling with their own inheritance in the form an out of date mission or a expectations arising of past achievements or conflicts. We’ve seen such issues in PWNW. Also, surely the concept of “representation” is an issue itself. It seems to be one in need of re-invention at every level of our society. By way of an example, Just look at trade union membership & local Gov election turnout – they’ve been falling for years. Perhaps the fact we can “tweet” at David Cameron makes us feel like we can represent ourselves, thank you very much!

    As well as all that, I think about the conditions play providers find themselves within. Firstly, people are incredibly busy. Gone are the days when an organisation could “play out” nationally. Such things must be weighed against very urgent local demands. Secondly, Look closely and you’ll see growth as well as shrinkage. There’s a shift away from Local Gov provision to third sector provision. There are emerging stories from those expanding play provision that relate to community strength & family resilience that are playing well with local funders. Those who are growing are using their values/ideas/results to change the conditions locally, enabling funders and commissioners to invest. There are new “arguments for play” emerging and they aren’t being captured nationally.

    Here’s what I think we need to do, based on what we have learned:

    *We need to keep our networks alive & useful. Lets hear success stories as well as doom & gloom (e.g ) How is austerity really playing out?

    *We should stop being pure about who (national org wise) does “play” and who does “playwork”. Speaking of our own members, its playworkers & their organisations that are local advocates for “play” – they are the only people working to spread an understanding, thus they must be supported.

    *Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are still part of the UK – we need dynamic links.

    *Our local networks need to be better linked, given that regions are now meaningless (journey times are the new geography – I can get to Belfast & Norwich quicker than I can get to Carlisle!)

    *Somebody needs to actively energise such linkages BUT not through exercising control. It’s about actively engaging & connecting people, growing activities organically as opportunities arise.

    *Informality is key – networks are not about establishing a hegemony of ideas or one best way, they should enable the proliferation of approaches, serendipity, shared values & fun. We aren’t a religion.

    *We should not seek to set up a hierarchy – I think the above conditions make that pointless at this stage.

    Non of this is expensive in the scheme of things. I’ve been trying to do such for PWNW’s members & it costs between 6 – 8k per year (a website and 3 events per year) and as activity scales, the costs don’t scale with it. The secret is the quality of the creativity and energy invested into the network as well as having a single point of co-ordination/facilitation. We are trying to do such at PWNW (trying!) Couldn’t supporting a national network be a key role for Play England?

  2. grumpysutcliffe January 4, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Hi Dave, Good to hear from you. I couldn’t agree more, particularly about representation, particularly in our sensitive sector. The problem may lie in the unavoidable fact that communicating knowledge, support, success, failure, whatever also implicitly confers power and power implies control and I don’t know the way round this.

    For (a dangerous) example are the vociferous critics of Play England members of Play England? the answer I know is “no”, but why not? this seems to me to be one of the real problems of the sector.

    My second point would be that, while I agree the large organisations can be in danger (intentionally or not) of competing for funds from smaller more locally based organisations, they can also by their nature pull funding into the sector which otherwise we might miss out on. However another conundrum, to what extent do we then follow the funding or influence it. Sadly I don’t know the answer to that either.

    Thanks again for the comment,


  3. Mark Gladwin January 7, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    Hi Robin, Dave

    All sorts of interesting worms are crawling out of the can that Robin has opened – it’s a problem knowing which one to follow first!

    Starting with the question of the relevance of regional play associations as a distict kind of life form in the play menagerie: I agree there’s a need to re-think, driven partly by the hard times experienced by the whole play sector and partly by changes in how we communicate. People’s consciousness of belonging to a region – in any context, not only in the play sector – is not uniform across England. I can only speak for Yorkshire, where my feeling is that the play sector does still share a strong sense of geographical, regional identity which expresses itself in two ways: a desire to network with play sector colleagues in Yorkshire, and a desire to speak up for the region as a whole whenever policy for play becomes an issue. These desires still exist, even though the means of satisfying them have become problematic.

    I think these twin desires explain why there is a long history of regional self-organisation in Yorkshire, dating back in my own recollection to 1982, but probably starting even earlier. First there was Yorkshire and District Play Association, kicked off by Rob Wheway as (then) regional officer for the National Playing Fields Association. (The “and District” tag was designed to accommodate the fact that Rob was based in foreign parts, ie Chesterfield). YDPA at some point renamed itself Yorkshire and Humberside Play Association so as to line up more clearly (and lucratively) with the increasingly important “Standard Regions” in government planning, and specifically with the regional network of PlayBoard. Times changed, PlayBoard disappeared, eventually the volunteers ran out of steam, and YHPA withered away. Then in 2005, another fairy godmother appeared in the form of SkillsActive (to whom, Robin, I don’t think your account of origins quite does justice) and Yorkshire Play was born. Same stuff, different day. Since then, of course, times have changed again. Financially speaking, ever since the SkillsActive funding was withdrawn, Yorkshire Play has reminded me of the Roadrunner cartoon, pedalling frantically just over the edge of the cliff. For the time being, we are still defying gravity!

    One lesson to be drawn from this potted history is that in Yorkshire at least, for a regional play association to flourish, it helps enormously if there is a national quango in the background with some resources to put in, whether in cash or kind. Dave’s plea for support from Play England for a network of regional play associations is therefore greatly to the point. As a trustee of Play England, I wish we could say yes and do it just like that, but in reality this is a vision that is likely to take a long time to realise.

    But returning to the question “what are regional play associations for anyway?”, I agree with what Dave says about the need for inclusivity, openness and avoiding top down forms of organisation. One of the main USP’s of Yorkshire Play has always been that we bring together a wide variety of play sector beasts in one menagerie – playworkers, playwork trainers, play development workers, parks officers and equipment manufacturers. We haven’t always succeeded in exploiting as fully as we might, the opportunities for dialogue and mutual learning offered by this rich mixture, but we’ve tried. Breaking down internal barriers in the play sector is a cause to which we are very committed.

    Regional play associations are permanently in danger of falling between all avaiable stools – usually too small to access national pilot funding for strategic development, often too big to deliver bums-on-seats play programmes in communities. Where funding is potentially available, there’s a risk of destructive competition at both national / regional and regional / local levels. The trick is to find areas where a specifically regional delivery dimension genuinely adds value, and then create the partnerships to make it work. The Free Time Consortium has been great, but we need more and more diverse opportunities for what Robin calls “dog feed dog”.

    It’s interesting that Yorkshire Play’s notional budget needs for a within-comfort-zone mode of basic operation are very similar to PWNW’s as described by Dave – £6-8k per annum to maintain a worth-looking-at website, facilitate commuication and run 3 events a year. Perhaps the red and white roses should get together on a funding bid?

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