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Julia in Cambridgeshire

How one determined play streets activator changed county council policy.

Julia is a mum with two children aged 3 and 6 living in Cambridge, and this is the story of her one-woman campaign to make play streets easier for all residents across Cambridgeshire.

Julia Sang and her two childrenI first experienced playing out when visiting my Mum in Enfield. Imagine: a suburban London street, a rat run. One summer afternoon a group of residents close the road to through-traffic, the kids come out to play. They bring chalks and colour the tarmac rainbow, they teach each other skipping games, they chase up and down the road on bikes. A woman new to the street comes out to meet her neighbours, sharing around cups of tea.

This was the first play street I’d come across. I thought it was magnificent, and I immediately wanted to create that same experience of freedom, joy and neighbourliness in my street. There were a lot of families living on my street and I knew there was support for the idea – but then came the application process…..

Overwhelmed by bureaucracy

Before I started the process for my street, I wanted to talk to others who had already done it. Playing Out put me in touch with a couple of people who had tried play streets in Cambridge and they were more than willing to give me some advice.

They explained that the application process had become more difficult and with more conditions each year. For example, asking for people to either buy liability insurance or pay for any damage to the street furniture (bins, benches, streetlights etc). The process was too bureaucratic, and it seemed to assume that children playing was a high-risk activity with irresponsible parents in charge.

I started working on the application for my street, but it was impossible to meet all the criteria unless you had been formally trained in traffic management. This is completely unrealistic for the vast majority of ordinary parents/residents. It is also not proportionate with the scale of a play street which happen on residential streets outside of rush hour.

So, it appeared to me that despite play streets meeting all their strategic aims of improving health and wellbeing for their residents, the council really did not want anyone to do this.

Our application was eventually turned down because the shape of our street was deemed too risky. In the meantime, I’d identified several improvements that could be made to the application process via common sense, talking to Playing Out and doing research on how other councils approached the scheme and application process.

Challenging a risk averse council attitude

With support from the Communities team and Playing Out I met with the Highways department, who manage the applications. It became clear they were taking a risk-averse approach, for fear of something going wrong, the safety of residents being compromised, and the council being blamed. This is very understandable from their perspective, and of course safety is very important for all of us.steward in high vis checking road

However, all the evidence from play streets around the UK shows that this is an extremely low risk activity and Playing Out have excellent in-depth guidance and risk assessment for residents to make sure they are well prepared.

I wanted the council to take a risk-benefit approach or ask themselves: “what’s the cost of obstructing this through bureaucracy?”. Play streets have been clearly shown to improve children’s health and wellbeing and strengthen communities, which are priorities for the council. Added to that, they are resident-led so very low cost for councils.

We needed some strategic direction from the politicians to help us move forward. The Highways department in Cambridgeshire is managed on a county level so if we could get support from the county council, we could probably get changes made to the process.

Taking the issues to the county council

I contacted my local county councillor who also very helpfully happened to be on the Highways committee. She was very supportive of the initiative and helped me understand the process of raising this issue.

I needed to attend a Highways committee meeting where I could speak for two minutes on a subject. But first I had to have at least 50 people sign a petition in support of my subject.

I created the petition through the county council’s official process and shared it on social media in parenting Facebook groups in Cambridge. CamCycle picked it up and shared the petition amongst their members. It wasn’t hard to get 50 signatures.

I wrote a speech about the benefit of playing out. Whenever I practised, it was slightly over two minutes, so I was worried as they actually have a timer in the council meeting! Luckily the chair of the group let me finish. You can read my speech here and please share if it is helpful.

Immediate and resounding support from councillors

In the meeting there was immediately a lot of support for the issue with Councillor Ian Manning
saying “you can’t argue with children playing”.

Following the meeting the Highways department very helpfully agreed to:

  • Review with the insurance company whether the public can actually be liable for anything that might happen during an event, which would be different from what could happen with normal street usage. Parents remain responsible for children throughout a playing out session, plus they are just for neighbours on that street and not public events.
  • Review the format of the guidance that people need to read, understand and agree to, to be able to safely close a road.
  • Review the application form to make it more user-friendly.

Success!

The Highways team have worked very hard to improve the application form and guidance and there is good, clear information about how to install the road closure and marshal it. The section on insurance changed to ‘recommended’ rather than insisting residents take it out, which was another costly barrier. The council has a clear indemnity clause on the application page now.

More work could be done to simplify the language or make it more accessible for people to complete the application – Cambridge are still quite risk averse compared to other councils, and sometimes the language is off-putting. But…I am very pleased with the progress made. The local press even wrote about the appeal.

Cambridge news article
With lockdown rules easing we are already seeing play street applications coming in, so we hope to give confidence in this activity and keep improving the process. The Communities team in Cambridgeshire have now completed training for 16 community workers to support play streets across the county in summer 2021, so bring it on!

Julia has done an amazing job at getting the play streets application process simplified in Cambridgeshire. We recognise that this sort of action takes a lot of energy and time. If you are facing similar barriers in your area and would like support or advice to overcome them, do get in touch with us. To connect with Julia and other play street organisers in Cambridge, join their facebook group.

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