Green Spaces Magazine Article: Green Places - BIG play concerns

Key aims of the Big Lottery’s play programme include creating and improving free play opportunities. Good. It is, however, one thing to articulate desired ends, quite another to have a realistic sense of how they might be achieved. Understanding the connection between means and ends is part of the responsibility of any powerful purse-holder. This is doubly the case where money derived from the public is concerned, and where non-elected bodies, such as the Big Lottery, make decisions about funding elected ones – local authorities.

Like so many others, PLAYLINK welcomes in principle the BL play programme. Concerns are emerging, however, about how the programme is working in practice.

Many local authorities are only now grasping the substantial nature of the application requirements confronting them. Those tasks are to a great extent generated by the Big Lottery, seemingly with no appreciation of the context within which those requirements need to operate. Even those authorities that have well developed, knowledgeable and experienced play departments, and a play strategy – ones formulated prior to even a hint of the possibility of a BL play fund – report that the application process is needlessly convoluted and confused.

For those authorities, districts for example, with relatively limited funding allocations - £200,000 or thereabouts – that have traditionally seen their role as providing fixed equipment playgrounds (the emphasis on ‘fixed’ and ‘equipment’), they are now being asked to conjure up play partnerships, comprehensive play strategies, BL funding portfolios, all based on audit and consultations. In the land of cosy abstractions - management handbooks, guidance and toolkits – these requirements may make some sort of sense. Yet they are akin to works of fantasy for many of the authorities keen to secure play funding. Critically, the limited duration of the programme (two application dates left) force potential applicants to respond mechanistically, focusing on procedures not substance - the proverbial tick-box approach.

PLAYLINK works with others to change radically the way places for play are understood and created – see the Places of Woe: Places of Possibility online exhibition to get a sense of what we’re about. The play programme should represent possibility.

Again and again we find a desire to move towards a more creative practice, one grounded in what we know about children, young people, play and place making. To achieve this, time is needed to address fundamentals, to look again at hand-me-down assumptions, to tackle knotty issues: what is a good play place? How do we accommodate beneficial risk-taking in a risk averse culture? How do we – do we want to? – accommodate play within a shared public realm? Questions that cannot be addressed at a gallop.