John Twyford: Scandalous sums needed to fix parks
THREATENED with having to find almost £500,000 this year to make neglected childrens' play areas safe and well-maintained, Mid Devon District Council is finally realising how stupid some of its policies are.
Back in January 2012 it suddenly emerged that massive amounts of money were fairly urgently needed to replace decrepit and potentially dangerous equipment and safety surfaces in many of the district's playgrounds.
A backlog of problems had developed, partly because the council had failed to properly protect play equipment from the weather by the simple act of painting it.
In November 2011 council open spaces and cemeteries manager Adrian Cook reported to councillors that: "There are currently insufficient funds to finance the regular painting of equipment; this has resulted in the rapid deterioration of the play area stock."
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The difference between the cost of solving the problems and the annual budget for play areas would have been laughable, if it were not so scandalous. More than £450,000 was needed, but the budget was just £23,850.
Nobody at the council either then, or since, has offered any explanation as to why Mid Devon District Council neglected so many of the 100 or so play areas for which it is responsible.
How did the council get itself into a situation where it had an almost half million pound backlog of repairs and replacements? If it was all a result of a lack of paint, how come nobody noticed earlier that equipment was not being painted? It would have been better to have spent a few thousand pounds on paint earlier, than have to spend a few hundred thousand replacing weather-worn equipment. The root of this problem, in my opinion, lies in a consultant-commissioned report; the Open Space and Play Area Strategy, dated December 2006, which guided the council's approach. It insisted that every new housing development must provide, or contribute to providing, open spaces and play areas. The ratio was 2.5 acres per 173 new dwellings, 15 per cent of which had to be childrens' play areas. This meant that almost every housing development ended up with a play area, built by the developer, who also provided the council with enough money to maintain it for 20 years.
There are two problems with this. The first is obvious: what happens to that play area after the 20 years is up? The second problem, in my opinion, is that having umpteen tiny play areas with similar equipment is not the best use of resources, as many families prefer to go to a larger, well-equipped play area.
Take Cullompton for example. This town has seen a huge amount of new housing in the past 20 years, and consequently now has a population of about 23,000, of which about 2,500 are below the age of 12. And how many playgrounds? Cullompton has an astonishing 25 council-run play areas. That is ten play areas for every 1,000 children, far in excess of what is needed or usual.
Crawley Borough Council, for example, was pleased to report that it had just over four play areas per 1,000 children, many more than the average in West Sussex of 2.9 per 1,000.
By adopting the silly policies outlined in that 2006 report, the district council has saddled itself with more than 100 play areas across the district, many of which are barely used. And many of them have reached, or nearly reached, that critical 20 year point, where the developer's money starts to run out, and the financial burden transfers to the council. Presumably this is one reason why funding for play areas in Mid Devon is now nowhere near enough to maintain them all.
Why on earth didn't someone at the council see this ticking timebomb earlier? And why didn't the council simply get the developers to contribute to a fund, which it could then have used to build fewer, more appropriate play areas, rather than having one next to every new development?
Thankfully, councillors meeting today, January 15 2013, are being asked to agree to abandon play areas where the developer's money has run out and to adopt the principle of closing under-used smaller play areas in order to concentrate funds on larger ones.
I think this makes much more sense. But I also think this is a perfect opportunity for the council's watchdog scrutiny committee to do its job and find answers to the questions above, which I hope I am not the only one to have raised.