When an adventure playground in Battersea Park was closed in 2012, there were assurances from the Conservative-run Wandsworth council that it would reopen, albeit with different equipment and no staff to supervise play. In part, this was true, but what also happened was that the council signed an agreement with the private company Go-Ape, for it to run an exclusive adventure play zone within the park, costing around £20-£30 per session o use.
In the grand scheme of things, the closure of one free and supervised play area may not sound all that terrible. But when it comes at a time when youth clubs, children's centres and play schemes across the country are being savaged by local authority cuts, the impact, particularly on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, can be huge. And there are concerns that other councils will follow suit.
"A big worry for us, is that as more government cuts come, other areas will consider similar proposals and this could be the future for our public parks," a spokesperson for Playgrounds Uncut, a group which campaigns against the sell off and closure of parks, says.
"Publicly funded adventure playgrounds and youth centres are fundamental to creating community cohesion and for the development of young people. Slashing these essential services is backwards and unimaginative, and will lead to a dysfunctional society in the long term".
In recent years, there has been a series of cuts to free play areas around the UK. In Manchester, adventure playgrounds, which were built for disadvantaged children in areas like Moss Side and Wythenshawe, were forced to drastically cut their opening hours after the council slashed their funding. In Dorset, 22 council-run youth centres are currently under threat because of proposed local authority cuts. In Carlisle, 21 parks had equipment removed. And it was reported last month that an adventure playground and play centre on Hampstead Heath are facing reduced hours. The list goes on.
A report published by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2014 found that 45% of local authorities were considering either selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management to others. New public spaces are rarely fully publicly-owned either. The planned Garden Bridge park in London will be regularly closed for private events, with a series of draconian rules in place for members of the public who are allowed to use it. Earlier this year, London councils warned of a slide towards privately-owned parks in the capital by the end of the decade.
"London’s parks are at a crossroads and we cannot continue as we have in the past – the money simply isn’t there," Councillor Julian Bell, Chair of London Councils’ Transport and Environment Committee, said at the time. "If we pass the tipping point, communities risk losing control of parks, along with democratic accountability for the open spaces that they value so much."
As is so often the case, it's not the individual cuts which have a big impact, it's the cumulative effect of cuts across the board. Youth services have been hit particularly hard. Research carried out by Unison last year, showed that since 2012 more than 2,000 youth workers had been axed, 350 youth centres were closed, and 41,000 youth service places for young people were lost. Set against a backdrop of parents in insecure work, benefit cuts and a society where thousands of people now rely on food banks, it's easy to imagine the impact these cuts could have on vulnerable young people.
Playgrounds Uncut and the Wandsworth Anti Austerity Campaign have organised a protest to coincide with the official launch of 'Go Ape' in Battersea Park tomorrow. The council says the park has benefited from brand new equipment and that the new privately-run obstacle course is simply an additional option for those who wish to use it.
It may be too late to save the free supervised play area in Battersea Park but campaigners hope that by coming together with other groups they can prevent the loss of more vital services for young people