As Government cuts bite, children’s play is suffering
Council services across Darlington are facing the squeeze as part of national cuts. In the first part of a series investigating the impact on residents, Paul Cook looks at the cancelled Playbuilders scheme.
FOR two years, a group of families fought hard to redevelop their once-proud but now dilapidated park.
They held fun days, drew up lists of desired equipment and drafted plans.
Then last year, the blossoming Green Park scheme was brought under the umbrella of the National Playbuilders’ scheme.
But while work took place on half of Darlington’s 22 projects, the people near Green Park saw their dream run into difficulties.
Local opposition – on the grounds that the park would encourage anti-social behaviour – delayed the venture.
The delay could be decisive.
Planning permission for the project in Oakdene Avenue, Darlington was finally given in March.
Fourteen-year-old Ellie Baker passionately and eloquently addressed the planning committee to ensure dozens of other neighbouring children got the park they desired, including junior and toddler areas.
But work has yet to begin, and those who fought so hard for the park still wait nervously.
Chairwoman of the friends group Sam Eason said: “I am very disappointed that the delays in getting this scheme off the ground may now have jeopardised its success.
“I think Government policy around children – and especially play – are short-sighted and Icannot believe that the Department for Education does not recognise the importance of investing in the future generation.”
The Green Park project is tantalisingly close to fruition.
Contracts have been signed and it is the next on a list of projects to start. However, while it once divided local opinion, it now almost as neatly divides the town.
Eleven other communities have seen their dreams realised at a total cost of more than £500,000. Last week, the Government asked for the rest of the money to be returned.
It means another ten schemes will not get off the ground.
Ward councillor Heather Scott has been given assurances that Green Park will go ahead, partly because £100,000 of the money has come from a scheme provided by local housing projects.
Coun Scott, as chairwoman of the Conservative group, has defended the end of the Playbuilders’ project. “Sadly, it’s another one of these things that people were misled and the money wasn’t there,” she said.“It’s a shame, obviously, for the areas that won’t get the parks. But while play is important, education is more important.”
Darlington Borough Council was already prepared for such a decision, by making plans to return the money in its first draft of cuts.
Councillor Stephen Harker, portfolio holder for health and leisure, says: “It is particularly frustrating that it isn’t one decision. We get dribs and drabs of information coming through, and it is hard for us to make proper decisions.
“The sad thing is we will have people who see equipment elsewhere in the town but now they won’t get new equipment.”
Environmental regeneration charity Groundwork Trust has led the Playbuilders’ project. Lisa Kwok, from the charity, says: “The projects that we have completed have been really positive and we have lots of positive comments from families and children using the areas.”
In the light of last week’s announcement, those using the parks were disappointed but gave a mixed reaction.
One woman said the country had to cut its cloth accordingly, while another said the debt was not children’s fault.
Grandmother Christine Bell, from near South Park, says: “The parks get children out in the fresh air. The Government wants to get rid of obesity and to stop them watching mindless television.”
… but at least one neighbourhood has got a play area
A PLAY area which was completed using Playbuilders’ money opened to the public this weekend.
The community amenity in Albert Hill, Darlington, received £50,000 from the fund as part of its £169,000 renovation.
An opening day was held on Saturday for local residents to have a look at their play area.
Tom Medhurst, chairman of the Central Community Partnership, which was behind the park’s refurbishment, said: “It is vital.
“The play area was always there, but it had become dilapidated, with some of the equipment removed for health and safety reasons.
“Now children and young people have got some facilities to use.”
As well as Playbuilders’ money, the park was paid for through section 106 – money fromdevelopers of nearby housing schemes – National Lottery funds’ Changing Spaces and Fair Share, and the Esh Community Fund.