Connecting Parks and Policy: revisiting the implementation and consequences of the Play England Design Guide

7 May


Last year Sutcliffe Play ran a Homeshow where we invited Aileen Shackell to come and talk about the 10 design principles embodied within the Play England publication “Designing for Play”. Her audience on two days were Sutcliffe Play customers, mainly from Local Authorities parks departments responsible for the design and purchase of playgrounds. During the course of these discussions several things became clear. The first was the effect of austerity on Local Authority policy, particularly in relation to Playgrounds and maintenance and, secondly, the extent to which Local Authorities had moved back to the design principles prevalent before Play Builder and Pathfinder money had been made available to them. Thirdly was the redundancy of Play Officers and the loss of Play Policies. However, it was also clear that there was a feeling of regret about this regression to previous attitudes and a sense of something lost.


Following these days and in discussion with Aileen and several Officers we believed that there was an opportunity to discuss how we might reconnect previous aspirations with today’s reality and several of us decided we would have a second debate where these issues could be aired. The second meeting, also hosted by Sutcliffe Play brought together experts with both practical management experience of providing spaces for children’s play and designers and policy makers, Nicola Butler, Chair of Play England and co-author of Design for Play; Helen Woolley, Landscape Architect and Reader at Sheffield University and Noel Farrer of Farrer Huxley, Landscape Architects. All of whom have experience of creating interesting and challenging playgrounds. We hoped that the meeting would help to Reconnect practice and theory.



We began by spending five minutes taking ourselves back to 2008, when £235m was announced for play and imagined how we dreamt playgrounds would look, ten years later, in 2018.


The result was interesting and very diverse. It included, amongst other things, excitement, appropriate to place, the elements, diversity, accessibility, natural, loose parts and anarchic on the one hand and sustainable, durable, low maintenance and affordable on the other. Thus, rather than sense that we were all working to a basically similar dream, it became apparent that we were not.


In the ensuing conversation a number of topics were covered and issues became apparent. I have tried to list these below rather than describe the seminar as it took place.


Design for Play

Design for Play was not written to be applied as a statutory instrument or a quality standard, it was only three days before publication that the authors became aware of the use intended by the DCMS when they announced the funding for children’s play. Consequently, it was a mistake that the ten principals were used on a tick box basis, the more ticks the more points a playground scored and funding approval given. This was quite wrong, some of the best playgrounds have only one sort of Play to offer. Equally it was never intended that such emphasis would be placed on Natural Play.


During the course of the day it became clear that there was agreement about the principles and that in a new document, they would need little change, other than perhaps greater contextualisation. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed, which are now more important and urgent. There was universal agreement about the need to reduce fencing to only the places where it is really needed (although at Sutcliffe Play we rarely see this reflected in the schemes we are asked to design! RS). Synthetic surfacing was less clear. The justification for synthetic surfacing is related to potential litigation, maintenance and cleanliness, with several officers indicating that they are using rubber grass mat wherever they can as a more attractive alternative to wet pour or tiles.


Interestingly, when asked about the 6 Acre Standard produced by FIT (NPFA) several people thought that it was still being referenced in development plans and policies. Feelings were mixed about this, some feeling that the influence was negative (product specification) and others that it at least set a space benchmark, necessary, although sometimes hopelessly inappropriate.


Natural Play

Issues around Natural Play came up throughout the day. It became apparent and agreed that this was a concept that was neither understood nor applicable in most places; why on earth put tree trunks and rocks in the middle of a natural playable landscape? There was clearly an issue of advocacy and the case had not been made, nor the concept understood, prior to imposition. The fact was that at both Fribourg and Sterling the work of play Gurus and advocates for natural play had been subsequently undone (the tragedy of the Playbuilder and Pathfinder programmes and the creation of Play England within the NCB was that the there was no resilience, value systems cannot be imposed; in order to be understood they have to be discovered. RS). There was also anecdotal evidence of people asking where the playground was, when faced with a natural playground and criticising the playground for lack of conventional features like swings, roundabouts and slides. There is definitely a case for conventional equipment signposting play. Equally access to the natural world was agreed by all to be beneficial for children.



The subject of training was raised and it was noted that there is no formal qualification for play design and installation, except in the Landscape department at Sheffield. It was felt that Play and design for play should be far more widely included in professional qualifications (personally I think that this would be a vital element in establishing resilience and embedding quality and understanding in playground, housing and public realm design RS).



The impact of reduced funding has driven Play Officers to putting maintenance at the top of their Agenda in considering the specification of playgrounds. There was some lack of clarity here as it was suggested that the cost of maintenance in percentage terms of capital cost for natural playgrounds was the same as for conventional playgrounds at 5% and that Natural Play has a cheaper capital cost than conventional playgrounds. This was interesting as it was also agreed that many Natural Playgrounds had been removed due to maintenance issues, rotting trunks and accidents.


Funding for Play

This was a major issue during our discussions and in many ways framed all the questions around design. Almost all Play Policy Officers with an understanding of the principles of play have now been made redundant. That means that playgrounds are back in the hands of Parks Officers and occasionally (my adverb) Landscape Architects and it was clearly stated by participants that really Parks Officers are not trained for this role.


The possibility of a statutory requirement for play, as exists in Wales was discussed, but, however desirable, was recognised as being highly unlikely in England. However undesirable, the move from local playgrounds to destination playgrounds was observed, as they are cheaper to maintain. Increasingly responsibility for doorstep provision is being written into development agreements with house builders, greatly to the detriment of quality.


It is not just revenue funding for staff that has been cut, but capital spend as well and without the stick of Playbuilder, responsibility and process has returned to the previous default. Inevitably this has more or less led back to the known solutions of the past.


Alternative funding streams

The role of friends organisations and the voluntary sector was raised (on which so many social functions now rely) and while it was not dismissed out of hand, the complications of using people without the necessary training and knowledge were identified. There was also a clear and understandable acknowledgment of employment insecurity in all alternative solutions.


Revenue from cafes, both direct or through franchises was being realised by a number of those present as was the use of parks for events, although these do have attendant problems of wear and maintenance. Indeed, one participant stated that they were now obtaining 50% revenue funding from “commercial” and alternative sources. (the provision of cafes is, of course, symbiotic, in that they provide a function that has always been recognised as valuable in terms of play and particularly in relation to accessibility, as well as providing alternative revenue).


Pay to Play was dismissed out of hand, but then discussed in some detail. It was agreed that it is simply too politically hot to handle. Different models were put forward, such as local residents being given free passes or passes based on free school meals and it was observed that many commercial destination playgrounds are covered in children, but . . . . . . . . . .



This was agreed to be a major issue in achieving good design. Procurement is generally done through purchasing offices that have neither understanding nor interest in the needs of children. Understandably, their remit is to get best value for money. However, in the case of play this tends to be judged on the basis of numbers and quantity of hardware and not on the potential play value of space or quality of product. There is never money for design or consultation, Design being carried out in competition between equipment suppliers and consultation taken out of the Parks revenue stream, resulting in a beauty parade for children to choose and therefore inadequate and inappropriate. The German model of specification by Landscape Architects, which seems to produce far better quality and more appropriate spaces, was suggested.


Managing Risk and RBA

Almost all of those present had returned to conventional risk assessment and the use of standards as being the most relevant to their needs. The high level of claims and the prevalence of No Win, No Fee litigation continues to drive caution. The HSE were not identified as a problem and a really depressing case was cited of a Local Authority taking a claim to court in the belief that they would win and then damages being awarded against them. The Barrister concerned advised against appealing. However it was acknowledged that with non-standard situations RBA was a valuable tool.



The need for stronger advocacy for play ran through the seminar like a gold thread, weaving its way in and out of almost every subject. Perhaps the strongest element was the call for more recognition of the need for play and investment in play. The link between play and health being perhaps the platform on which we should build. The beneficial link with well-being, obesity, diabetes and youthful unrest, all have a clear evidence base and should be being used as a platform on which to promote the sector.


While in the past the Children’s Play Policy Forum has been focussing on engaging with the administration in power, it was now felt that the time was right to produce a position statement laying out the true aspirations of the CPPF as a baseline for any future discussions. It was felt by the CPPF that bringing the Landscape Institute, the Forestry Commission and National Trust onto the Forum would strengthen the case for play and its advocacy.


If Design for Play was to be reviewed then it was felt that, to be successful in creating better places for children to play, whilst retaining the principles, it should move the emphasis and focus more on the practicalities and barriers currently facing Parks Officers.



So, I think that this was even a little more depressing than I had anticipated, just the divergence in aspiration of the postcards should have warned me, but in that case the need for dialogue and a listening spirit is even more important.


Clearly, we all know that the three-year timespan of the big spend was too quick and resulted in a very mixed bag of products and understandings; but overall everyone agreed it was worthwhile. For me the message was clear, coercion does not win hearts and minds and if this sort of money were to be found again then resilience and advocacy would be my door posts through which policy and process would have to pass.


It is difficult to synthesise the messages of the day. I feel that if Design for Play is to be republished then the context and intention of the guidance needs to be made more clear, but the actual principles remain valid as does the Golden Rule, although I might personally want to simplify it and relate it more closely with Genius Loci, the essence of place.


Audit Playbuilder

It seems to me that the implementation of Playbuilder sites through Design for Play was aspirational. At the time to me it felt wonderful! However it was based on a set of paradigms accepted and understood by the policy and strategic players within the sector, but not by the sector ultimately responsible for implementation and maintenance. I would suggest that before embarking on such a programme again we need to audit the Playbuilder sites, draw lessons from the results before identifying the aspirations of another round of capital spend. We would then need to embed these principles proven by time across the sector through dialogue and training and to inform future advocacy.


Either within Design for Play or as separate documents each of the above topics might qualify for a paper in their own right. Perhaps the most important would be procurement. Indeed, some of it might come under the remit of the CPPF?


For me this was an exhausting day, but that was probably as much the heat as the content. It was very useful and should perhaps be the first in a series of cross sectoral focus groups.



One Response to “Connecting Parks and Policy: revisiting the implementation and consequences of the Play England Design Guide”

  1. Tim Gill May 14, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

    Thanks Robin for these comprehensive and clear notes. It reads as a helpful (if of course impressionistic) assessment of the impact and legacy of the English play strategy. How times have changed! Having returned from my Churchill Fellowship travels (and thanks for reblogging some of my posts), I was struck by the difference in funding climate in the European cities I visited. Continuing austerity here is all-but fatal for innovation and improvement in local authorities. So yes, advocacy is key – and I suspect you are right that children’s health and well-being are central to our approach to advocacy.

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