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Alice Ferguson

Who in Government is standing up for children?

posted this in Activism, Children's play, health and wellbeing, Street Space on 04/04/2024

Last week, we were back in the Houses of Parliament for the final live session of the select committee inquiry into children, young people and the built environment.

Over 100 organisations and individuals (including us!) submitted written evidence to the inquiry, collectively making an indisputable case that children are being badly let down by Government policy, with massive impact on their mental and physical health. Children’s fundamental needs – to play outside, socialise and get around under their own steam – are not being considered, let alone met.

The oral evidence sessions strengthened this further, demonstrating that:

  • Children’s health and wellbeing is in a critical state, especially for those facing inequalities
  • Children are not considered in planning/housing/transport policy
  • The built environment does not meet children’s needs to play outside, socialise, travel independently, access spaces and places
  • This is a crucial factor underlying the children’s health crisis

Recommendations for Govt have included:

  • Prioritise children’s wellbeing and their need for outdoor space/play/physical activity
  • Work cross-departmentally to ensure this need is met
  • Update national planning policy/guidance, mandating specific consideration of children in planning and development
  • Prioritise safe streets where children can walk, cycle and play
  • Take immediate steps to restore children’s access to outdoor play, such as a national ban on ‘No Ball Games’ signs, and support for play streets

This final session was the chance for the committee to present all this evidence to Ministers and senior officials, and to ask them what Government is doing to address the issue. Having lobbied for this inquiry to happen, we were keen to be there in person and to hear the Government’s response.

A happy coincidence

On the train to London, as these things tend to happen, we heard that the Children’s Commissioner was launching her new Big Ambition report, almost simultaneously with the inquiry session, in the reception room immediately underneath. We were squeezed in last-minute and managed to hear both Dame Rachel de Souza and (1970s childhood hero) Baroness Floella Benjamin give rousing speeches to a packed reception room about the urgent need for children to be at the heart of government policy-making.

Floella spoke powerfully about how badly children had been let down over years, with nobody representing their needs outside of education at cabinet level. The current Children’s Minister (a junior role within DfE) had made a brief appearance but didn’t stick around to hear the Baroness say that his role was a very “downgraded” version of what is needed.

The sad reality

Well, I’m sorry to report that the Inquiry Session upstairs was a reality check and a stark reflection of all this.

Firstly, it seemed that Government could not decide who was responsible for this very niche and off-radar topic (“Children? Outside? In public space?”). Sadly, the Children’s Minister had not been rushing upstairs to attend the Inquiry session and we later gathered he had declined the invitation to attend. Only the Housing Minister appeared, admitting he had not discussed the Inquiry with colleagues from other departments and was “too busy” to prepare.

Chief Planner Joanna Averley gave evidence alongside the Minister, surprisingly defending the current planning framework, essentially arguing that children don’t need special consideration beyond the very basic existing recommendations for designated play space.

The short answer to this would be that local authorities, by law, have to consider impact on all other equality groups, but not children (or at least the law is not clear on this – see our analysis here). As well as this, there’s good reason why children need special mention and consideration. Adults are the “default” citizens, voters, home-buyers, tenants etc and decisions are generally made with them in mind. Children have different needs from adults and – unless explicitly considered – these are almost always overlooked.

The other argument put forward by Government – that local authorities and developers “can” apply best practice in terms of considering children – also cuts no ice. If they don’t have to, as we’ve seen, they generally don’t. In fact, as housing developer Jonny Anstead argued in the previous session, leaving this to goodwill actually disadvantages those who choose to follow best practice as they are setting their own bar higher than others. It seems obvious that the only way to ensure children are considered in planning everywhere is to mandate that children are considered in planning everywhere.

At one point, referring to a graphic from the national planning guidelines, Natalie Elphick MP exclaimed, “Children aren’t even on the wheel!” and committee chair Clive Betts pointed out that even in recent additions to the planning framework there was no mention of children.

Averley’s response – that the existing guidance already encourages decent outdoor space which is “invariably used by children” – unfortunately does not reflect the reality. Even where there is decent, safe communal space, which certainly isn’t the case on many/most new developments, children are often discouraged or excluded from using it, through design, use or management. No Ball Games culture still dominates.

The Housing Minister, Lee Rowley, seemed deeply disinterested in the whole topic and didn’t try to hide it. Having apparently not read the briefing or any of the evidence, at one point he claimed, “I’m sure things are better for children now”. His overall philosophy was universality, localism, “speeding up planning” and removing barriers to volume house-building. “I don’t believe in mandating councils to consider children”, he said.

Not exactly a shock, given the minister’s politics, but the glaringly obvious problem with this approach is IT’S NOT WORKING. Children, especially those with least, consistently get a raw deal and something has to change.

What now?

Nobody would dispute that we urgently need to build more homes, of course we do, but this must be an opportunity to do things differently and better, not an excuse for more of the same (or worse). Would it really be that hard to “build in” to a new national housing strategy the requirement that all new developments are good places for children to grow up, where they can play out, thrive and feel part of their community? Couldn’t Government decide that any new or upgraded roads must be safe and suitable for children to walk and cycle?

There is already plenty of good practice to follow and we know what this looks like. The beauty of child-friendly places is that they are also community-friendly, healthy, safe and sustainable. If the current Government is unable to see this, there is a huge opportunity for whoever comes next.

The Committee’s report will be published in the summer and, if it reflects all that has been heard over the past three months, could be a gift to those in power over the next decade – a roadmap to restoring children’s freedom and access to outdoor space, and all that comes with it.

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