CROYDON COMMENTARY: Our cash-strapped council is so hard-up, they want to charge kids hundreds of pounds for the simple pleasure of playing in the street outside their homes. EMMA HOPE-FITCH explains
Back in 2015, I had the pleasure of organising one of Croydon’s first Play Streets, at Love Lane in South Norwood.
It was a fairly simple process. I organised a consultation with the residents that would most be affected by a potential road closure.
This involved the cost of my time (volunteered), leafleting (funded by me) and fielding questions that arose from the consultation (more of my time). It didn’t cost the council a penny.
Once everyone was on board I applied online (more time). The council emailed a notice of road closure for me to print at home and they delivered closure signs and barriers to me.
Our Play Street was held on the second Sunday of each month for two hours. At the allotted times volunteers (no cost to the council) would drag the boards and barriers to the correct place and marshal the road for two hours while families and neighbours came out to socialise and play. Children from small toddlers to pre-teens all got something from this simple freedom of being able to play in the street where they live.
And our play street was soon an award-winning play street. And we have an award-winning garden, too.
In 2016 and 2017, Love Lane won the Play Street of the Year award from charity London Play. The children made films about why they love play street and were invited to show them on the big screen.
Everything about play streets helps young people learn and grow. “Independent play” is widely recognised as a vital part of a child’s development, but parents cannot reasonably achieve that safely with younger children if their nearest park or play area is a 10-minute walk away.
And it isn’t just about the children.
In many ways, the play street helped our community bond more than it had done previously. Childless adults had a chance to get to know their neighbours. Standing in the street with a cup of tea and a chance to chat was welcomed by many (oh, how we could have done with more of that during lockdown).
As a result of people getting together for the monthly play streets, Love Lane also now has a community garden. Last year, the community garden was recognised by London in Bloom as outstanding in the It’s Your Neighbourhood category. It all began with neighbours standing in the street chatting while children played happily around them. Let’s face it, it’s not just children that need to get away from their electronic devices.
By talking with each other, in person, we can organise direct action to improve our own communities. Whether it’s a Sensible Garden, Community Kitchen or Litter Picking Friends, community matters.
Before the pandemic locked us all down, there were around 10 play streets around the borough. But all that good work, those years of volunteer effort, helping to bring our community together, risks unravelling now, after Croydon Council decided to charge Play Street organisers £195 every time the volunteers want to enjoy the “privilege” of them and their neighbours and their children staging a play street.
We have had help along the way introducing play streets around the borough. Council official Maria Nawrocka was my main point of contact and she was fantastic throughout the process, supporting me in 2017 with a new play street in College Road, central Croydon, and again in 2018 when I trialled a school play street.
We all know the council is broke and are desperately trying to balance the books. We know that all services have to be paid for. But £195 per month for a two-hour closure of a street, where volunteers drag out the signs from their own storage seems… well… outrageous.
When I heard about the new charges, I contacted Maria. But Maria is no longer working at the council. She was made redundant in the first round of job cuts last year. But she doesn’t think charging for play streets is a good idea, and risks undoing all the good work that has been achieved in the last six years.
She had this to say: “Play streets are a very simple idea that is as old as the hills: that children should be able to play.
“Society has given over much community space to the car and to traffic. Play streets give some of this space back to children and communities for a very limited time – usually only a couple of hours each month. In 2014, supporting the introduction of play streets was one of the first decisions of the Labour administration in Croydon.
“There are costs to the council for approving a play street and these proved an insurmountable barrier to holding a play street until June 2014, when the council agreed to cover these costs. Since then, play streets have grown in popularity, mostly as monthly resident events but also school-based sessions or one-off events for International Car-Free Day.
“Every Croydon play street will have stories of how their play street improved their community.
“I supported play streets from 2013 to 2020 and have been privileged to attend every road where there has been a play street in Croydon. There is no template – each road is different and has a play street that works for their children and their community. Quite often the first person I meet is one of the older residents who is monitoring the barrier, there is always a welcoming group of adults having a chat, but I rarely to get to meet the children – they are too busy having a good time.
“I find it hard to believe that residents would be charged for organising a play street as this was an election pledge. I have tried to check with the council, but the best answer they can give me is to contact… me.
“If a charge of £195 is introduced, it is likely to put play streets beyond the reach of most communities in Croydon. In which case it will be ‘Farewell then, Croydon play streets’.”
Hamida Ali is a councillor for Woodside ward, which includes Love Lane, who is now the leader of the council.
When she visited Love Lane’s second pilot play street she said, “Residents have got together and done this for themselves.” So Councillor Ali has some understanding of what it takes, and costs, to stage a play street.
There has been upset among play street volunteers. Siobhan O’Hanlon Calleb, of Tudor Road Play Street, has started a petition in a bid to encourage Croydon Council to rethink this dreadful decision. You can sign it online by clicking here.
“For Croydon Council to make it even harder for community volunteers to set up play streets, just as councils and charities across the UK launch the ‘Summer of Play’ initiative, feels beyond regressive,” was the view of another volunteer, from the Croydon Living Streets Group, who spoke to me.
“We know many children in our borough are already disadvantaged by the negative effects of obesity. Our council should be leading the way in making our streets even safer for physical activity, such as walking, cycling and street play, not putting further barriers in the way of our children’s well-being. This is a terrible move and very sad news for our young people.”
Fiona Sutherland, the deputy director at the charity London Play told me, “Play streets are almost the perfect medicine for children and adults who have suffered through more than a year of isolation and separation and a collective marked decline in mental and physical health.
“They are run by residents, for residents and bring substantial benefits for the whole community.
“Councils should be doing everything they can to encourage play streets to happen. We urge Croydon Council to reverse this very short-sighted decision so that residents can enjoy a summer of play and healing.”
- Click here to show your support for Croydon Play Streets by signing the petition
- Keen tea-drinker Emma Hope-Fitch (pictured right) was the Play Street organiser in Love Lane from 2015 until covid-19
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