Raymond Machell QC, in PLAYLINK commissioned Counsel Opinion, concluded that:
‘it is entirely legitimate for PLAYLINK to emphasise, in its Play Policy, the need to balance against the risk of injury, the benefits to children and young persons of undertaking play activities within an acceptable level of risk. Central, however, to the exercise of the balance is the undertaking of a careful risk assessment. Where there has been a careful risk assessment, resulting in a conclusion that it is permissible for play to involve a risk of injury, by reason of the resultant benefits, I am confident that Courts would be sympathetic to a Defendant, in the event of an accident and subsequent litigation.’
Our aim, in seeking Counsel Opinion, was to confirm our long held view that local authorities, and play providers generally, needed, in the words of the brief to Counsel, ‘to establish a robust, explicit framework for organisations to demonstrate that they have acted reasonably in offering children and young people risk in their provision for play, whether in designated play space or shared public space’.
We think it significant that the cost of Counsel Opinion was co-funded by a play equipment manufacturer and five of the local authorities with whom we have worked. PLAYLINK finds over and over again that increasing numbers of play providers are eager to be released from the stultifying, uncreative, defensive forms of practice into which too many have retreated, or been pushed.
The fact that Counsel Opinion was required is an indicator of just how insidious and prevalent risk averseness and illiteracy has become in the public realm. For the Opinion tells us nothing that was not already known.
But that is to bemoan the past. Our purpose is to look towards, and affect, the future. From that perspective, Counsel Opinion should act as a spur to councils to formulate a policy framework that provides that ‘robust, explicit framework’. This is distinct from a play strategy. Indeed, it is difficult to understand what exactly a play strategy thinks it is doing in the absence of a play policy, for policy articulates what a commitment to, and understanding of, play actually means.
This is not a plea for yet more dust-receptive paperwork to be generated. It is a plea to attend to fundamentals so that the pent up energy and creativity too often trapped in a ‘watch-my-back’ culture is released and made available to children, young people and the communities in which they live.
The detailed Opinion is an aid to the release of that energy. One of the specific questions we asked was about Standards:
‘Thus, in my opinion, the proper approach to British or European standards is not to regard them as laying down a compulsory standard to be followed slavishly in all cases, but as a guideline demonstrating the general consensus as to what would constitute sensible precautions in any given case. If a rational process of risk assessment, together with a balance of cost, risk and benefit can justify departure, then there would be no failure to exercise reasonable care.’
PLAYLINK develops play policies, strategies and works directly on the ground to help create best possible play spaces. Our baseline policy creates that ‘robust’ framework; the process of policy formulation aims to create an informed, local consensus about what we mean by quality places for play, whether in shared public space, or designated playgrounds.
Where local knowledge and creativity is deployed, much can be achieved. We say this confidently, both on the evidence of our ‘play walkabouts’ where we visit with local play providers the range of spaces that should, or could, be available for play, and in the new addition to the joint Free Play Network/PLAYLINK Online Places for Play Exhibition, ‘Places of Woe, Places of Possibility’.
Delivering best possible play opportunities – for young people as well as children - requires an appreciation of the range and complexity of the factors that press upon the matter. Consider three. What is a good place for play? Risk’s relationship to play. Notions about consultation and participation.
If places for play are reductively understood as predominately about play equipment, a wrong move has been made. Perhaps not so much a wrong move, as a miss-mapping of the territory available to us. There are criteria available to assist in judgment-making about what might constitute a quality place for play, and they neither allow nor disallow equipment. But understanding the logic of the criteria extends what the mind’s eye can see when thinking ‘places for play’.
Similarly, if the knotty issue of risk’s relationship to play is not addressed, at both policy level and on-the-ground, it is likely that windy rhetoric about aspirations will be somewhat in advance of our capacity to deliver, though masquerading achievement is always possible.
It is surely also time to develop and confidently articulate a more nuanced, critical, stance in respect of consultation and participation. The aim must be to foster engagements in good faith with children, young people and adults. This is somewhat divorced from an approach that thinks of engagement as a form of consumer testing, as though the aim of creating a sustainable public good – in this case, a durable place for play – is similar to choosing between one brand of chicken marsala against another. More is at stake. A wrong answer here cannot be countered simply by swapping it for another one tomorrow.
Our argument in support of play policies has always been twofold: one, that it creates a formal, publicly articulated framework for making judgments about ‘what is reasonable in the circumstances’ when providing places for play; second, that the act of public articulation creates the conditions for play providers to say what they mean by play, and to mean what they say. On that basis engagements in good faith can take off - and the consumerism of merely choosing can metamorphosise into something more akin to informed decision-making. It is the least that younger generations should be able to expect from ours.