Stephen Dunmore
Chief Executive
Big Lottery
1 Plough Place
27 October 2006

Dear Stephen Dunmore,

Children’s Play Programme

Our purpose in writing is to share our very real concern that the Children’s Play Programme is in danger of undermining its own declared purpose - to create, improve and develop children and young people’s free local play spaces within a strategic framework. The immediate concern is that the programme’s duration is too limited leaving little or no time for authorities to think and act strategically, or create authentic forward-looking, sustainable partnerships. Critical to both, is the time required to explore and question an often extremely narrow understanding of play, and the time needed to develop and foster relationships.

PLAYLINK works to enhance and extend children and young people’s play opportunities. One aspect of our activity is working with local authorities and cross-sectoral groupings to develop play policies and strategies. Over ten years, we have worked with some 25 local authorities in this area, currently engaging with six. PLAYLINK, with the Free Play Network, has supported the play strategy development process by, for example, hosting a facilitated online discussion forum which, in a two week period, attracted some 5,000 hits. In addition, we have extensive informal links with councils and play providers.

The play programme is now approaching its final year with, effectively, two application dates remaining. The BL requirements, for example on capital bids, are onerous and, in our view, over-elaborate. Quite why a non-elected body, such as the Big Lottery, requires elected bodies - local authorities - to have to go through quite so many hoops to achieve capital funding is difficult to appreciate. Local authorities invariably have their own procurement protocols and not a small amount of experience in delivering capital projects.

Putting issues of principle to one side, the practical effect of requiring planning permission (where necessary) and a tendering process prior to application, means that there is necessarily a long lead-in time from conception to costed scheme. This, in our experience, creates pressure to propose projects that simply repeat the negative practices of the past rather than address fundamentals and thinking afresh.

This, combined with the time-consuming nature of developing a partnership-based play strategy - often in situations where there is no history of contact between different types of providers - has resulted in too many authorities feeling impelled to hurry though the BL application process in a mechanistic, backward-looking way.

In practice, many local authorities are only now grasping the substantial nature of the task that confronts them. Those tasks are substantially generated by the Big Lottery, seemingly with no appreciation of the context within which they are required 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.

There are also questions about the authority and availability of advice to applicants. Play England is still in the process of establishing its infrastructure, and BL’s advice to potential applicants has been reported, too often, as being vague, confusing and therefore unhelpful.

Strategy development, must, if it is to be meaningful, address fundamental questions about the meaning of play, and what those meanings entail in practice. From this perspective, a strategic approach to play requires that knotty questions about values and meanings need to be addressed. This is not an academic exercise. Such considerations have a direct impact on the nature of play opportunities created. To identify two key issues: the relationship of risk to play in the context of authorities’ concerns about potential negligence claims; and, what constitutes a quality place for play? There is no easy consensus on these issues.

There are therefore two aspects to the difficulties being encountered:

  • the first, is the limited duration of the play grant programme that creates an unnecessary and artificial sense of urgency for potential applicants
  • the second, are the difficulties applicants and potential applicants have when attempting to engage with the Big Lottery.

Some at least, perhaps all, of the negative aspects of the current position could be countered by simply extending the duration of the programme, for at least a year, better still, two. As important, such an extension would help create the context for the development of more considered, creative and sustainable approach to play. We believe that this position would attract support.

This letter will be circulated to Lead Officers for play and will be posted on the PLAYLINK web site.

A hard copy of this letter has been posted.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Bernard Spiegal
cc Adrian Voce, Play England