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Local Play Areas Face Closure

John Freeman
Lancaster City Council’s Cabinet will meet tomorrow (Tuesday 20th April) to discuss the future of playgrounds in the district - and several are earmarked for closure.

The council is currently responsible for maintaining playgrounds at 79 sites and, although the vast majority are in good repair, a small number of its low priority and older play areas require significant investment. With finances tight, some play areas seem sure to close.

To ensure that the council continues to have a wide range of playgrounds in areas where they are most used, Cabinet is being recommended to consult with local people on future play area provision. If Cabinet members agree, the results of the consultation will be reported back to them for a future decision on where future investment should be targeted. Ward councillors will also have input on any consultation.

Cabinet will also be asked to consider developing a partnership approach with parish councils. This would see the city council provide some free maintenance work and regular safety inspections at 15 playgrounds owned by parish councils and a community group.

As part of the proposed consultation, local people will be asked whether a number of play areas which are no longer fit for purpose should be closed, including sites at Abbeystead Drive, Ambleside Road, Arcon House, Barnacre Close, Carwood Gardens, Church Brow, Crag Bank Field, Forest Park, Furness Street, Gregson Road, Hala Hill, Highgrove Close, Manor road, Montrose Crescent, Parliament Street, Skerton Cowshard, St Austell and The Roods.

The Council points out that all of these play areas are located close to other, better play areas and the investment needed to upgrade them would instead be targeted to areas of greatest need.

"This whole exercise is about making the jam spread less thinly," explains Councillor Jon Barry. "That is, we want to be able to have good play areas that we can afford to maintain at a good level.

"It is not about saving money," he insists. "Capital expenditure is one thing, but we also need to spend money on ongoing repairs and safety checks. Many of the play areas on the affected list are a single item that needs money spent on it or there is an alternative new brand spanking play area nearby. For example, in Castle Ward, one of the play areas, Forest Park, is two rotting, wooden animals that nobody uses for playing.

"Not all of the playgrounds on the list will be closed and we will certainly be encouraging and providing assistance for community initiatives to provide funding for new play areas," he adds. "Green councillors have done a lot of this over the years (for example, at Coronation Field and the Pointer roundabout) and the Fairfield Asscociation has developed an excellent one at Fairfield Green."

"For my ward, I'm pleased to see the recommendations which place parish council and community group play grounds into the strategy and considered with the other playgrounds," Council leader and LibDem prospective candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood Stuart Langhorn told virtual-lancaster. "Caton is currently raising money to replace an old parish playground."

While local taxpayers recognise the Council is being forced to make savings as budgets are squeezed thanks to reductions in funding from central government, some have challenged the council on its priorities - noting, for example, the millions spent on the currently stalled Luneside East development project.

"Luneside East is not really relevant," argues Langhorn. "The running of the playgrounds is revenue budget. With the pressure on the revenue budget over future years through reduction in central government grant and through the recent decision on the market the council is going to have to make some tough decisions.

"At least in this case we are consulting – and already some responses have said the plans are wise and allow for better play areas."

There is both a revenue and a capital budget for our local play areas. Jon Barry points out that the budget was increased by £40,000 this year as a one-off.

“Since 2006 the city council has invested £137,000 on improvements to 12 of the district’s higher priority play areas," notes Peter Loker, Corporate Director (Community Services)."We also plan to invest more than £100,000 in play areas in the next few years, which will include the building of two new play areas to fill gaps in the current provision.

“However, many of the older play areas are in locations where they are not well used and require significant investment to bring them up to a decent standard.

“It is important that our future investment is targeted towards those areas where it will do most good so Cabinet will be asked to consult with local people to find out where that should be.”

Despite the proposed consultation, the whole idea of closing playgrounds sits uneasily with many councillors.

"Bulk ward councillors are very concerned about the three closed play areas in the ward and want them kept open," says John Whitelegg. "We want to explore the possibility of so-called 'natural play areas' which are more adventurous and do not involve expensive equipment like that in Williamson Park that was imported from Sweden.

"We also want the council to be much more engaged with local communities and help them to prepare bids for external funds to access grants and we want much more discussion with children and parents," he adds. "Play areas need to be linked to the national agenda on healthy children, more physical activity and work to reduce obesity.

"The large number of dangerous roads in the area also means we need more play areas and not less so that children can access them without crossing busy ones."