Last week I had a second meeting with representatives of Lambeth council to try and address what can reasonably be described as huge failings concerning the new play area in Norwood Park.
The new playground is based on water play, which if implemented correctly can produce activities which children of varying abilities can enjoy together.
The new play area is located 20 yards from another playground which is designed only for able-bodied children. Like most playgrounds in the borough, this has few (if any) accessible activities for children with impairments.
The idea of the new water play area located next to it was that it would provide an additional space with facilities that disabled children could access, but which would also be inclusive, so young people of all abilities could play together.
Accordingly, the new project brought together a number of funding streams and cost in excess of £250,000 including around £60,000 of Aiming High money for disabled children.
The project has been plagued by problems from the beginning, with allegations of mismanagement. Lambeth has already apologised for some of the events.
But now the play area has finally been completed it is being publicly celebrated as a great resource which can be accessed by all children in the area. Rather than being inclusive and accessible however, most of the area and activities are completely inaccessible to children and parents who use wheelchairs, and have impairments to their mobility. This is a moumental failing, given that it was funded and created to be quite the opposite. What in effect has been created is another segregated play area, despite the funding for disabled children.
There are for example three new sand play areas, but these have foot high rims all the way around making it impossible for a wheelchair user to access them. When I asked how these were inclusive and accessible, I was told that the have special bottoms under the sand, made of material that provides a firm base for wheelchairs and buggies. At present however no wheelchair or buggy can utilise them to discover whether they work.
The central activity for the water play are water pumps, which children use to dispense the water which then flows down channels. They are fundamental to the play activity. The pumps however are all too high for children in wheelchairs to use. Observation showed that they were even too high for some small children to use (the playground is designed for children up to 12 years of age). One has a large rock placed underneath it for children to climb on, but this means a wheelchair user cannot get near it.
When it comes to the central feature of the area - the channels down which the water flows, and in which children are supposed to play - all have been made too narrow for wheelchairs to fit. Even if wheelchairs could fit many of the channels have high rims which can not be crossed. The sides are also far too steep. This all has implications for many other children with physical impairments. It is only really agile, able-bodied children, who can climb down into them. This is a tragic, as wider, less steep, accessible channels might have provided an inclusive play environment throughout the area.
The exclusion continues across the other play activities. I was told that some activities were designed so that able-bodied and children with impairments could play together. However in many activities there is little, if any, chance of collaboration. Many tasks are clearly for the sole use of able-bodied children, with no realistic possibility of collaborative play. For example, this water mill over which water can be poured, is on the side of some rocks behind a wooden barrier, under which water can't even be transferred from one child to another. It would be hard to find a more inaccesible area in the whole playground in which to place the activity.
Other activities are also located behind wooden rails, presumably placed there for safety. Whilst safety is crucial, the decision to place key play activities on the other side of these barriers is extremely puzzling in an environment which is supposed to be inclusive.
One redeeming feature is a ramp (in addition to many steps) which children can climb, at least to approach (if not use) some of the activities. But even with that, I was told, only half has been made usable for wheelchairs or buggies. 50% of the surface is too uneven. There is therefore only one way up and down for wheelchair users, whilst able-bodied children have an additional ramp all to themselves. Rather than an oversight, this I was told, was deliberate, in order to provide a challenging play environment for able-bodied children. It is important that able-bodied children have challenging play environments. However, the decision to create such a thing on a ramp has to be questionned, particularly given the predominance of steps and rocky terrain throughout most of the rest of the play area.
The list of problems and barriers goes on and on. The most serious concern however are the exposed edges which run throughout the playground, next to drops and sheer inclines of between a foot and several feet. Whilst in some areas wooden rails are used innapropriately and unnecessarily, in other areas it appears there are no safeguards at all. If a wheelchair user puts a wheel over the edge in many places, they are likely to have a serious accident (possibly a fatal one, particularly if a powered wheelchair user). This is compounded by the fact that some edges are already cracking and breaking. (This one moved when applied with pressure) The issue of safety was highlighted last year but the concerns were apparently dismissed.
Some parents I have talked too are incensed. Children I have talked too are extremely disappointed. And it comes at a time when Lambeth Council has announced that it has signed up to the Every Disabled Child Matters Disabled Children’s Local Authority Charter.
As it currently stands, the play area is a monumental and expensive failure in its aim of providing accessible and inclusive play.
A lot of information has still to emerge. I have been told that much of the Aiming High money for disabled children was used to refurbish the toilets in the adjacent playground.
Along with parents and children, I have now met twice with representatives from Lambeth council and others who organised the project. It seems that there are a number of reasons for the failings – not least mis-management and a lack of proper consultation. I will continue to press for a full explanation about what has brought this situation about, and assurances that the same things do not happen again in the future, elsewhere.
The immediate task however is to try and do something to rectify the situation, and ensure changes are made to make as much of the play area as accessible as possible, within the constraints of what has now been created. Some of the failings are so large and inbuilt - such as the inaccessible water channels - that it may take huge upheaval and large expense to put things right. There are also the immediate safety concerns which must urgently be addressed.
Along with representatives from Lambeth, I have been with parents and children to visit the playground, highlighting the (dozens of) problems, and making suggestions for what changes might be made.
Now that the project is completed and the budget all spent, this will be a challenge. But inaction is simply not an option when such a sizeable number of children and parents have been so let down. Whether the council has a real commitment to inclusive play will be judged not just by the project, but the way that they respond to its huge failings.