PLAYLINK introduction

In summer 2006, PLAYLINK commissioned an independent researcher, Sarah Cheverton, to conduct a survey on procurement and maintenance practice in respect of non-supervised playgrounds, i.e. the spaces typically found in parks, housing estates regeneration areas, etc.

The survey was designed to explore playground procurement’s role - along with a look at maintenance issues and attitudes to risk in play - in determining the type of play spaces we create for children and young people. PLAYLINK, along with others, has long felt that procurement practice too often militates against creating best possible playable spaces. This view is shared by at least some playground equipment manufacturers who find that procurement practice requires them to dance to a tune that should not in fact be played.

Since the survey period, there appears to be movement towards a broadening of approach by at least some local authorities. Certainly, PLAYLINK’s designs for play service is generating increasing interest as our Associate Landscape Architects work on schemes for a range of settings, parks, housing, playgrounds and nurseries. This more active involvement in designing for play, has thrown up additional issues not directly covered by the survey reported on below. A key one is the way play budgets, in particular for non-supervised play provision, are allocated and structured.

Briefly stated, play budgets appear in practice to operate in isolation from wider park and open spaces budgets. We have thus found ourselves in the limiting and frustrating position of being invited to develop play space with little or no reference to the open space development going on all around. Budget allocations, and S106 agreements, appear to be structured so that they are driven to generate two lines of independent decision-making on open space - the general park or green space, and play provision - that will be experienced by users and residents as one.

We are pleased to be working with a number of Registered Social Landlords that wish to change the way shared communal and playable space is understood and provided for. Here too, however, there are considerable barriers to be overcome if the position of play is to be improved in existing and new residential developments.

Further research in these areas would be useful here. PLAYLINK would consider undertaking a web-based survey but is mindful that ’survey-fatigue’, consultation-fatigue’s close cousin, may mean a survey will generate only a limited response. Your views on whether you would like us to consider undertaking a survey would be welcome.

PLAYLINK’s aim is to create ‘playable space’ (a very useful term coined by Tim Gill) that responds to and enhances the local environment, whether within shared public space, communal space or designated playgrounds - playable spaces with a sense of individual identity that, at the very least, attends to the aesthetic possibilities. We see that there is much yet to do.

The survey raised questions, but did not directly address, about the status of standards and guidance. Readers will find it useful to look at PLAYLINK commissioned Counsel Opinion on this.

The report that follows is by Sarah Cheverton, a free-lance researcher. She has subsequently agreed to be a PLAYLINK Associate, maintaining her independence, but undertaking research and explorations on behalf of our clients that want to benefit from a not-too-expensive research capacity.

Bernard Spiegal, Principal, PLAYLINK

Researcher’s Summary of Findings

The PLAYLINK survey deals almost exclusively with local authority procurement and maintenance of playgrounds and play areas. The results illustrate the diversity of arrangements for children’s play within local authorities, in terms of both the:

  • department or service responsible for play procurement
  • responsibilities within individual roles of officers dealing with play procurement.

The diversity of these arrangements is perhaps unsurprising, given that play is not a statutory service - arrangements for play provision are at the discretion of each individual authority. Many would add that, because play, in common with Parks and Open Spaces, is a non-statutory service, budgets are thereby squeezed. This would seem to be confirmed by the view of the majority of survey respondents, who reported that both revenue and capital budgets were inadequate.

The main conclusions of the report are as follows:

  • the procurement processes followed by local authorities significantly constrict the options - in terms of design, specification and the final delivery of play spaces - thereby limiting creative possibility
  • this narrowing of options can be seen in the preponderance of fixed equipment playgrounds
  • respondents reported that the fear of litigation underpins a significant amount of decision-making in relation to play space design and delivery, undermining the necessary presence of risk within children’s play
  • this fear of litigation is evidenced in the adherence to standards and guidelines that local authority officers do not always consider to be helpful
  • local authority play space budgets are considered by the majority of respondents (70%) to be highly inadequate, raising questions about many local authorities’ responsibility to maintain and respect their long term investment

These conclusions are briefly summarised below.

Narrowing of options

Despite the variations in local authority responsibility for play, and the diversity of the procurement process itself - to the extent that hardly any procurement processes described were exactly alike - most local authorities seem to be broadly locked into processes that narrow the options available to them, in terms of design, specification and the final delivery of play areas in their local communities.

From the results of the survey, several factors might be said to conspire to create this narrowing of options.

The involvement of equipment suppliers from the commissioning stage of the procurement process would appear to go a long way to explaining the amount of fixed equipment playgrounds commissioned over the past five years by respondents (68/91% out of 75 respondents stated that between 80 -100% were fixed equipment playgrounds). It also explains the dominance of fixed equipment playgrounds in play provision across the country.

The dominance of technical and practical considerations that emerged in the responses on play specifications also revealed the huge influence of fixed equipment provision on design. Again, this is unsurprising if equipment suppliers are involved in the procurement process from the early stages, and especially if they are also involved in the consultation stage.

The survey illustrated a strong commitment to involving local communities in the process of play procurement and design. However, given the overwhelming involvement of fixed equipment suppliers from an early stage of the procurement process, it seems fair to say that by the consultation stage, many communities are ‘choosing’ from a menu of pre-selected fixed equipment, potentially limiting the scope for creativity.

Scope and limitation of standards and guidance

At first glance, it seemed as though the standards and guidance on play design may be another key factor. Most respondents clearly felt that some guidance and standards are necessary to ensure that all play provision meets a minimum standard of safety. However, respondents stated strongly that the standards could be interpreted too rigidly, and that this could often lead to, as one respondent put it, playgrounds becoming

“too static and safe, with little or no excitement”

As there is such a wide range of guidance available, and local authorities can, to a great extent, exercise discretion in their interpretation of them, I felt one respondent raised an important point when she/he stated that

“the fear of litigation is often the basis for sticking religiously to the standards.”

Although not covered explicitly in this survey, the question arises as to whether providers are clear about the status and authority of different standards and guidance.

The perceptions of the general public, as well as those of stakeholders in play provision - including local councillors, council officers, play equipment suppliers and community and user groups - also act as a key influence on the fear of litigation and the resulting narrowing of options for play provision. Again, this was summed up best by the respondent who stated:

“The anxiety of the public is as real as it is in a court of law. To break the cycle will take a media campaign, not a legal one.”

Respondents showed strong commitment throughout the survey to expanding existing models of play provision - for example, in their answers detailing play specifications, and the question on play provision in an ‘ideal world’.

Inadequate Maintenance Budgets

51/70% of respondents felt their current maintenance budgets to be inadequate. The majority of respondents to this question - regardless of the amount that it was felt revenue budgets should be increased - felt that the budgets for playgrounds are inadequate. This suggests that there are also concerns within local authorities concerning the best possible, long-term use of initial capital investment on local play spaces. It also raises a question concerning the type of message being passed on to local communities, when those responsible for the public realm are not able to maintain or ‘respect’ their long-term investment.


Despite there being no commonly identifiable process in local authority play space procurement, it would seem there is a powerful overarching framework to play procurement, which has an overwhelming effect on play space provision across the country. This framework - evidenced by an over reliance on guidance and standards caused by an inherent fear of litigation - effectively narrows the design of our play spaces, and has led to a predominance of fixed equipment based provision. In addition, the overall results of the survey indicate that this framework is so fundamental within our local authorities that it is unreferenced, unspoken and to a great extent unseen by local communities and political representatives responsible for children’s play.

This observation is not intended as a criticism of local authority officers. Indeed, the results of the survey indicate that such a criticism would be unsupportable. It is unsurprising to those with experience of working in any local authority department (and this researcher is one such individual), that the underlying ethos of local authority service provision is often predominantly risk averse. This risk aversion inevitably hampers creativity in service provision and design, as risk is one of the fundamental characteristics of creativity. Moreover, exposure to risk is vital to children in order to encourage creativity and personal development.

Encouragingly, and by contrast, the responses to the survey revealed a strong commitment amongst local authority play officers to quality, creativity, freedom and risk in children’s play provision, which was often frustrated by a lack of resources, and, more fundamentally, the aforementioned over-emphasis on risk aversion. It can only be hoped that this survey will contribute to the debates on play provision at a national level. Having said that, the survey suggest that it is local authority strategic players (i.e. Strategic Directors, Executive Members, local councillors and MP’s) and the broader public that need to be part of this debate.

Sarah Cheverton, September 2007


The PLAYLINK procurement survey was an electronic questionnaire posted on the internet via the PLAYLINK website: As well as being available to potential respondents who visit PLAYLINK’s website, invitations to participate in the survey were sent out to PLAYLINK’s emailing list. The survey was also promoted in, for example, Green Places and Children Now magazines and CABE Space. The survey ran from July until September 2006. The majority of questions yielded statistical data, with a small number of open questions requiring qualitative analysis.

The respondents


The survey yielded a total of 77 responses. The majority of responses (71/93%1) were from local authorities across England, with other responses coming from:

  • Scottish unitary authorities (2/3%)
  • Groundwork Trusts (2 /3%)
  • one response from a commercial leisure organisation
  • and one respondent did not provide this information
Organisation % of respondents
Borough Council 40
City Council/Unitary Council 18
District Council 22
Local Authority 5
Town Council 1
Scottish Unitary LA 3
Groundwork Trust 3
Commercial Leisure Attraction 1

The department or service in which respondents were based was diverse, yielding a wide variety of responses. Almost two-thirds (45/65%) of the respondents, however, were based within Parks, Landscape, Urban/Environment, and Green or Open Spaces (27/39%); and within Leisure and Culture (18/26%). The remaining respondents fell into a variety of departments/services, including: Youth/Children, Contract & Asset Management, Play, and Neighbourhood Services, and 8 respondents declined to answer.

Department/Service % of respondents
Parks/Landscape/Greenspaces/Open Spaces 32
Leisure & Culture 26
Community Services 9
Environment/Urban Environment 7
Youth/Children 5
Contract & Asset Management 5
Technical & Works Dept 3
Play Service 3
Neighbourhood Services 3
Amenity Services 3
Procurement 1
Land Team 1
Economic Regeneration 1
Countryside & Recreation 1

Roles and Responsibilities of Respondents

Almost three quarters (55/73%) of the 75 respondents to this question described themselves as responsible for four main procurement roles (see Table 3): budgets; identifying suppliers; agreeing suppliers; final procurement decision.

Table 3: Graph to show the responsibilities of respondents in procurement process (respondents could be responsible for more than one category)

In addition, a number of respondents identified other responsibilities within their role pertaining to the playground procurement process, including:

  • Design of play areas
  • Identifying areas for improvement
  • Type of contracts; implementation and supervision of contracts
  • Consultation with users
  • Installation
  • Maintenance and inspections
  • Risk assessment/safety
  • Prepare tender lists
  • Compile specifications
  • Liaison and advice on play areas to: councillors, planners, local Parish councils, housing developers; landscape design dept
  • Section 106 agreements

Type of supplier

We asked respondents who they generally contact when commissioning a new playground, or the refurbishment of an existing play area. Almost half of respondents (38/49%) reported that they contact more than one of these categories, suggesting that they use a combination of these options (see Table 2).

However, the vast majority of all respondents (70/92%) reported that they contact playground equipment suppliers, whilst only 17/22% of all respondents contact landscape designers. Only one respondent declined to answer.

Table 4: Graph to show the organisations or agency contacted by respondents when commissioning a playground - new or refurbishment.

In addition to the above, almost half (36/47%) of all respondents also stated that they contact an ‘Other’ type of organisation including:

  • Groundwork, Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents
  • artists, civil engineers
  • private sector ‘design & build’ services who buy in required items; and one local authority had a play partnering agreement with a national supplier/installer
  • equipment installers, e.g. safety surface installers and specialist product companies (fencing, seating)
  • users, school children, and local community (also mention of elected members, community partnerships)
  • in-house expertise, e.g. in-house landscape architect; Council Technical Section holds the remit to design the play area and identify the suppliers; in-house Landscape Design Team
  • contractors, e.g. parks; “landscape constructors for purpose of construction/renovation”

Type of playground commissioned

We asked respondents to estimate the percentage of ‘fixed equipment’ playgrounds that had been commissioned over the past five years.

All responses fell into a range between 60 - 100%, that is, no respondents stated that less than 60% of the playgrounds they had commissioned over the past five years were predominantly fixed equipment based.

75 respondents answered this question, and out of those, 55/73% stated that all of the playgrounds they had commissioned over the last 5 years were fixed equipment based. More conclusively, 68/91% of respondents stated that between 80 -100% of the playgrounds commissioned in the last five years were fixed equipment based.

Given that most respondents confirmed that fixed equipment manufacturers design their play spaces, it is unsurprising that the percentage of local authorities commissioning exclusively predominantly fixed equipment spaces over the last five years is so high. With the involvement of fixed equipment manufacturers at such an early stage, it is also unsurprising that there is little room for challenging the fixed-equipment predominance at a later stage, i.e. consultation with local communities and users.

Table 5: Graph to show the percentage of predominantly fixed equipment playgrounds commissioned by respondents in the past 5 years

Capital spend

The estimated capital spend on playgrounds over the last five years had a very broad spread, ranging from £20,000 - £7 million (This particularly large last figure comes from a local authority Parks and Countryside department). The spread is not in itself surprising given the different types and sizes of authority that responded to the survey. 72 respondents answered this question.

Over the past five years, the mean spend across all respondents, was £689,000, or £137,800 per year; the median spend was £500,000, or £100,000. In layman’s terms, this means that most responses to this question were concentrated at the higher end of the financial range.

To clarify further:

  • the majority of respondents ( 49/68%) reported their capital spend over the last five years had been under £600,000, or £120,000 per year.
  • just under half of all respondents (29/42%) reported a capital spend of under £300,000, or £60,000 per year.


The estimated spend on maintenance and repair of playgrounds over the last five years revealed a similarly broad spread, ranging from £1,000 - £1,750,000.

The mean spend across all respondents was £285,000, or £57,000 per year; the median spend was £150,000, or £30,000 per year. This means that most responses were concentrated at the lower end of the financial scale.

To clarify further:

  • almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents reported that their maintenance spend over the last five years had been under £250,000, or £50,000 per year.
  • just over half (53%) of all respondents reported a spend on maintenance and repair of under £150,000, or £30,000 per year.

Revenue Budget: views on adequacy

Only 22/30% of the 73 respondents to this question felt that their current revenue budgets are adequate.

Of the 51/70% who felt their current revenue budgets to be inadequate, 29/39% felt that their budget should be increased by 80 -100% (see Table 5) whilst 20/27% believed their budgets should be increased by only 5 - 20%.

Table 6: Graph to show by what amount respondents believe revenue budget should be increased

It must be seen as a cause for concern that the majority of respondents to this question - regardless of the amount that it was felt revenue budgets should be increased - felt that the budgets for playgrounds are inadequate. This suggests that there are also concerns within local authorities concerning the best possible, long-term use of initial capital investment on local play spaces. It also raises a question concerning the type of message being passed on to local communities, when those responsible for the public realm are not able to maintain or ‘respect’ their long-term investment. This is particularly prescient to current debates on vandalism of play spaces, and broadens this debate to encapsulate not only the users’ responsibility to respect play spaces, but also the responsibility of the local authority providers.

Specification and design of playgrounds

The vast majority of respondents (71/96% out of a total of 74 who responded to this question) stated that they refer to set standards or guidance when developing their play areas. However, respondents use a wide variety of standards and guidelines (see Table 6), with individual respondents often referring to more than one standard or set of guidelines in the development of their play areas. The graph below illustrates the range and extent of guidance used by respondents.

Table 7: Guidance or standards used by respondents in play area development

Almost two-thirds of a total of 75 respondents to this question (49/65%) use the British Standards BS EN 1176/77 most frequently (although a small number of respondents - 4/5% - also refer to British Standards PAS 30/35). Following this, the National Playing Fields’ Association’s5 Six Acre Standard was the second most frequently cited by respondents (31/41%), while just under a quarter of respondents (17/22%) use the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) play guidelines. A smaller number of respondents refer to: their own in-house standards and guidelines (14/18%), the Disability Discrimination Act (14/18%), European standards (6/8%), and guidelines from the Association of Play Industries (2/3%).

Utility of standards and guidelines

Although 51/71% of a total 72 respondents to this question felt that the use of safety standards and guidelines had a positive impact on play area design, when respondents expanded on this answer, their comments often revealed a more ambiguous picture of the effect that such standards can and do have in the design of play areas.

Over a third (29/40%) of the 72 respondents provided further comment on the impact of standards and guidelines on play area design.

Of the 29 respondents who provided further comment, only 4/13% respondents commented exclusively on the positive impact that the standards and guidelines have on protecting the safety of children at play. A further 3/10% respondents felt that the impact of the guidance and standards were, as one respondent stated, "a bit of a mix:"

“some recommendations seem excessive, others are very useful and proactive.”

However, for the majority (19/66%) of those who commented, the guidelines and standards were felt to have a potentially negative impact on the quality of play provision. This represents 25% of the 77 respondents to the survey as a whole felt that the standards and guidelines had a potentially negative impact on the quality of pay provision.

There were specific complaints on particular guidelines, for example that the "NPFA guidelines are too restrictive". Moreover, it was felt that the guidelines often led to a narrow vision of play design, heavily influenced by the fear of litigation:

As guidance etc becomes more and more specific and onerous, the ability to provide fun, challenging, exciting facilities diminishes - primarily due to such a high percentage of any budget having to be spent on highly expensive safety surfacing, fencing etc, leaving a small proportion of the original budget for the kit itself!

[Guidance] Can have an adverse effect on the types of equipment we would like to provide, or incorporate. Litigation being a major factor to local authorities, this tends to lean to functional play instead of inspiring.

[The standards are] too restrictive. There is a need for more challenging play for children and the best people to speak to about that is the children themselves.

One respondent commented that the fear of litigation was not entirely linked to the use of standards and guidance, but reflected a deeper issue, of public attitudes towards children’s play and risk:

EN 1176 was created by manufactures for their benefit. However, the anxiety in the public is [as] real as it is in a court of law. To break the cycle will take a media campaign not a legal one.

Another respondent concluded:

Play area design can only really improve greatly if providers are able to feel confident that basing untested designs on robust risk assessments will stand up in court in the event of an accident, i.e. the fear of litigation is often the basis for sticking religiously to standards.

Of the 19 who felt that guidelines had a negative impact, 6 respondents felt that the available standards’ concentration on safety could be rectified by placing more of an emphasis on the quality of children’s play experiences:

The standard does not help with the wider quality of design of the play space and how it relates with the environment.

The BS EN 1176 gives basic guidance on safety matters but does nothing toward design principles. This is often forgotten as a requirement for a good play area.

(Standards) can stifle design if taken too literally.

One respondent took a different, more positive, view about the guidance and safety standards in their play area design:

The range of guidance allows basic quantitative and safety standards to be met, whilst offering crucial qualitative advice relating to the need for greater consideration of the wider play environment and opportunities for creative play and play activities not necessarily linked to the development of particular skills and attributes important in adult life (i.e. play for its own sake rather than as a means to an end) - even so far as recognising the appeal of ‘doing nothing’ in a designated ‘play area’.

More recently (last 2 years), this has resulted in greater emphasis being placed on natural elements and spaces within our fenced/equipped play areas, consultation in schools and with community groups to establish ‘themes’ for play area refurbishments and also increased efforts to provide fully inclusive play environments and experiences rather than simply widening footpaths and adapting particular items of equipment to meet DDA requirements.

The essential features of a play specification

In response to being asked for the “essential features” of their play design specifications, respondents provided a diverse amount of answers. This question was open to interpretation and allowed respondents to provide as much, or as little information as they wished. Sixty respondents (78% of total survey participants) in total provided answers to this question, some providing a list of qualities or features, and others explained their specifications in more general and descriptive terms.

Many respondents commented on more than one aspect of the play specification and their answers fall into more than one of the category descriptions below.

Over two thirds (42/70%) of respondents to this question included in their answer some consideration of practical issues as part of a broader list of considerations. The technical ‘essential features’ aspects listed included:

  • “Low maintenance”, “durable”, “vandal resistant”
  • Compliant with existing standards on safety in play design, for example, “High regard on personal safety”
  • Containing specific features, e.g. fencing, seats, bins, rubber surfacing
  • Aesthetic considerations, e.g. “bright and colourful”
  • “Build quality”

Significantly, of these 42, 16/38% respondents based their answer entirely on technical considerations. For example:

“Tender based upon the JCT minor works contract

Provide a LEAP or NEAP to NPFA recommendations

Conformity to all necessary standards

Provide a post installation Inspection from RoSPA

(I also specify certain material requirements within the tender such as type of fencing, gates, safe surface, coulours, signage etc)”

“Robust, maintenance friendly - spare parts easily available. Certain standardisation of equipment. Tried & Tested.”

Almost half (27/45%) of respondents to this question, though only 35% of total respondents to the survey, also included the importance of the quality of the play experience, or the ‘play value’, as a factor in formulating their specifications, for example:

“Safety - equipment and surfacing

Ongoing maintenance costs

value for money

Play value (challenging/ exciting equipment)”

“Play value, value for money and safety are foremost in our minds but the specification is usually to provide equipment aimed at a certain age within a given budget. We will sometimes specify particular items of equipment and then seek prices. We have not installed a new play area over the last 5 years but have developed existing ones. We are trying in general to choose more challenging, imaginative and exciting equipment.”

“Our detail ensures infrastructure, access and siting are all adequate - following this play value which includes for a range of activity and allows access for all”

However, only 3 (7%) respondents based their answer entirely on the quality of the play experience (representing only 4% of respondents to the entire survey), for example

“Exciting, educational, stimulating, social interaction, exhilarating, challenging”

Just over of a third (21/35%) of respondents felt that the children and young people that the play area was intended for - in terms of age or ability of, or consultation with, end users - was an essential feature when considering the specification, including some respondents who listed this in isolation:

“The specification reflects the local area and age range. Young people and community groups have been consulted in some of the play area projects.”

“The equipment must cater to as wide an age range as possible. Different zones within the area for different age groups. The equipment must cater for social and imaginative play, as well the purely physical.”

“Meet the needs of the local community regarding the age, style and range of equipment.”

The response to this question revealed an implicit tension in the issue of play space design and specification; namely, that local authorities feel compelled to respond to the local demographic of the community at the time the play space is designed, whilst also recognising that these needs will invariably change over time as the users grow older. This is also indirectly referenced in the comments pertaining to ongoing maintenance and concerns over vandalism given above. One response to this tension might be to suggest that a focus on the current age profiles of users is redundant in the long-term, which has broader implications for the design of play spaces overall, namely that the habit of segregating play space according to age should be questioned.

Inevitably, a number of respondents (10, representing13% of total respondents to the survey) also mentioned the impact of budgets and budgetary constraints upon their specifications:

“Play value, value for money and safety are foremost in our minds but the specification is usually to provide equipment aimed at a certain age within a given budget. We will sometimes specify particular items of equipment and then seek prices. We have not installed a new play area over the last 5 years but have developed existing ones. We are trying in general to choose more challenging, imaginative and exciting equipment.”

“We want to provide challenging and stimulating play spaces. However, sometimes budgets are an issue and sometimes consultation identifies facilities that are not deliverable from a cost or occasionally safety basis. For example one adult felt we should provide a fire pit as part of one of our consultations. He wanted to show children the dangers of fire in an open space kind of environment. We try to incorporate other features, e.g. landscaping, Community Art, in the scheme”

However, no respondents spoke only of the role of budgets or value for money in her/his description of their specification.

Only five respondents (6% of total respondents to the entire survey) also included the suitability of the play area in their essential features, in relation to the surrounding environment, landscape, or natural features (although again, no one mentioned this factor in isolation):

“Landscape - Natural elements/topographical features e.g tree trunks, wooded areas, mounds & islands where possible to soften the site and promote varied play experience.

Orientation - Sunlight/shade & shelter etc”

Five respondents (6% of total respondents to the entire survey) also stated that the specification depended entirely on each project, and that as such, it was highly variable:

“It will vary depending on the project and range from compliance to EN1176 to meeting a design brief specific to the project.”

Fear of litigation

Notably, all 77 participants provided a response to the question on the impact of the fear of litigation on play space design.

Respondents were asked to highlight on a five-point scale, the extent to which they felt concerns about the possibility of litigation in the event of child injury unduly restricted their purchase decisions for playgrounds. The results to this question are best depicted pictorially and appear in the chart below.

Almost two-thirds of people (46/60%) felt that the possibility of litigation was a major or significant influence on their purchase decisions for playgrounds, a conclusion that supports many of the comments concerning safety standards and guidelines above.

By comparison, only 20% (15) of respondents felt the fear of litigation exerted little or less influence on their purchase decisions, whiles the remaining 20% felt that the influence was neutral.

Table 8: Graph to show the perceived influence of the risk of litigation in case of child injury on respondents’ purchase decisions for playgrounds

The fear of risk of litigation is revealed here as a strong factor in the design of play spaces, as authorities fear leaving themselves open to claims of negligence. This is congruent with the response already outlined above, in relation to the use of guidelines, and the expressed fear that these guidelines may lead to a narrow vision of play design. What is most interesting about this question is the strong awareness of the fear of litigation amongst play officers themselves, particularly when considered in relation to the strong opinions expressed by officers in this and other questions concerning the damaging effect of risk aversion on the design and provision of play space. This suggests a need for a broad national debate on the definitions and purpose of children’s play spaces.

This question is also interesting when considered in relation to the concept of the need for risk in children’s play. When the fear of litigation is such a significant factor in considering play design, it is unsurprising that the fire pit requested by an adult as part of a play space consultation (mentioned by a respondent and cited above, page 12) was refused on the grounds of safety - although it is interesting to note that the provision of fire pits within children’s play spaces does occur throughout Europe. Broadly, this question leads to another: should local authorities design play spaces from a creative position, or from a defensive one?

Overview of the procurement process

Respondents were asked to describe their own procurement process. We provided a pro forma eight-stage procurement process that respondents could order according to their own procurement process. If the stages given did not ‘fit’ the respondent’s procurement process, they were invited to describe the process in their own terms.

These two questions delivered a high volume and great variability in the response, providing a large amount of complex data. However, in general terms, the results of this question showed that:

  • most respondents (51/66%) identify their play area at the first stage
  • almost half of respondents (38/49%) then agree the budget for the play area
  • an almost equal number of respondents (22 and 24) select suppliers at stages three and four
  • an equal number of respondents (22/%) invite proposals from the supplier at the fourth and fifth stage.

The point in the procurement process at which respondents undertake consultation varied significantly. 17/% of respondents consulted at their third stage, most often undertaking consultation after agreeing the budget and before selecting a supplier. The remaining numbers of respondents at other stages were fairly evenly distributed.

Overall, the results of these two questions on the procurement process suggest that procurement processes vary: there is no one pattern or common process across all local authorities.


The following table shows the responses to the question: who conducts your consultations about playground provision? Some respondents gave more than one answer to this question, implying that they use more than one method of consultation.

Table 9: Graph to show who conducts consultations on playground provision

There were 71 respondents to this question, with many respondents choosing more than one category.

As most respondents work for local authorities, it is clear that the majority (45/63%) carry out their consultations in-house. Many respondents stated that several departments are involved in this process, including parks, landscaping, Community services and play or youth services.

Almost one quarter (16/23%) of the respondents (all local authorities) carried out their consultations in partnership with another agency or organisation. Of the 23%, local authorities worked in partnership with:

  • community groups, including Friends of Parks and local community (7/10%)
  • equipment supplier (5/8%)
  • community groups and play equipment manufacturer (2/3%)
  • landscape designer (1/1%)
  • community groups and schools (1/1%)

Only 5/8% of respondents stated that play equipment suppliers or play companies conduct their consultation, and the same percentage commissioned a consultant. A small number of respondents (3/4%) fell into the category of ‘other’. These respondents stated either that they did not undertake consultation, or said that they used a variety of methods to consult.

Some respondents (6/9%) also included a brief description of their consultation process, for example:

“Authority provides the venue and does all the admin and invites and provides the catering, the local play group and any other interested residents do the arrangements and presentation for the consultation events, play ground suppliers do their stuff and go away. I take a back stage position enabling the local group and children to participate as far as possible.”

“Hire a publicly accessible room/venue close to the proposed play area location and invite the local public to attend and make comments. Hopefully, a consensus can be reached on the favoured design (based upon child and adult comments).

It also gives anti play area residents a chance to have their say at an early stage and relevant comments can be taken into account”
“For any new scheme or major refurbishment we run a competition at the local school and get children to vote on which scheme they like the best”

In an ideal world…

Finally, we asked respondents an open question: to describe any measures they would take ‘in an ideal world’ to improve their procurement process.

52 out of the total 77 (68%) participants provided their comments. Many of these responses were detailed and some were particularly lengthy - though none the less welcome for that - providing comments on a variety of issues relating to play and playground procurement. The volume, length and detail provided in the responses to this questions reveals a strong level of commitment, passion and genuine concern concerning play provision amongst the respondents, and often revealed an underlying frustration caused by the distance between what officers would ideally like to achieve and the constraints - often budgetary or risk averse - imposed by the processes and systems within which they work.

The comments included in these 52 (68%) responses generally fell into the following categories (in order of the frequency with which they were mentioned):

  • the procurement process (22/42%)
  • the philosophy of play (22/42%)
  • resources and funding issues (13/25%)
  • strategic approach to play (6/12%)
  • happy with process/wouldn’t improve (4/8%)
  • don’t know (2/4%)

Almost half of the respondents to this question (22/42%) stated that they would change at least one aspect of the procurement process itself, for example, requesting more freedom and less bureaucracy in the procurement process overall. These responses tended to overlap and/or also include comments pertaining to the next category, concerning the ‘philosophy of play’ as follows:

“The council draw up a list of equipment suppliers and installers which can sometimes lead to lack of product choice therefore it would be preferable to be able to purchase equipment that I thought (and the children) is most suitable.”
“Available time and officer resource is usually against us but ideally I would like to put together a specification that describes play value in its many elements and develop a system of scoring tenderers against their ability to meet this!”
“Less Bureaucratic process”

“More time to talk to the users and more money. AND if money is available from various government and quasi government organisations there should be less hoops to jump through. (However how to ensure it gets to where its needed and not just where people have the resources to apply for funds beats me!)”

“Children’s play provision should be in line with the needs of that community for which it supplies. Without knowing the needs of our customers it is not possible to provide adequate play. I feel that more consultation is required and ownership and commitment.”

22/42% of respondents provided comments that relate to the underlying philosophy that underpins play provision in local authorities.

Out of these 22 respondents, 64% (14) were calling for less formulaic conceptions of play and play areas, in particular, the provision of something more than fixed equipment. Responses that fell into this category also requested a greater emphasis on the natural environment and less fear of litigation as an influence on the design of play areas:

“Place greater emphasis on play value re natural environment - willow hut, logs, water/sand play trees etc. working more closely with parks and grounds maintenance staff to provide this. Divert budgets away from “hard” provision to greater maintenance and litter collection/cleanliness needed to keep “natural” play environments - eg wooded areas in parks which at present are full of dumped rubbish, porn mags and beer cans in the state where children (and their parents/carers) want to play in them.”

“I would like to see some more non conventional items of play being included in some of our schemes rather than mainly play equipment based. Sometimes the Adults and Children are so set in their ideas that they want conventional play equipment that they can not see the benefits of other items. Unless we deliver what they want it is then deemed unattractive and not supported. Not popular with external funding bodies”

“I think there are enough standards and guidelines out there to create good play spaces. I would like to be able to access companies in the market place that offer a more holistic service and are not so play equipment bias. The hard aspects of playspaces are well covered but the problems always arise in the soft aspects such as landscaping. As a qualified horticulturalist I am only to aware that people do not value enough the contribution this profession can make to our public spaces and this is evident in poor salaries and a lack of people entering the industry. If you wish to remove the emphasis away from play equipment then horticulturalist and not just landscape architects need to be given more status in the development of pubic spaces including playspaces.”

“The problem is adults perception of what a play area is - most think its about equipment and organised play. Another problem is that the politicians think the same and if one ward has a new play area then other ward members want one too.”

“Install imagination into the powers that be to expand the range beyond “what we’ve always had.” There is so much more interesting play kit out there, but LAs are stuck in the one swing, one seesaw, one roundabout mould. Risk of litigation is cramping the adventurous spirit of both authority and children, despite manufacturers building in all possible safety measures.”

Exactly 25% (13) of respondents mentioned the pressures on play departments, in terms of time, money and staffing:

“Sufficient funds and resources to afford the design of bespoke play areas which do not use ‘off the shelf’, standard equipment”

“More officers or other time to prepare/investigate/integrate schemes etc better.”

“Ideally would like more resources available to improve grounds maintenance service which would allow for more creative and environmental design that facilitate free play.”

A smaller number (6/12%) of respondents called for a more strategic approach to play nationally:

“Lets get play as a statutory service”

“A national standard based on best practice would be very useful to break out of the closed mentality of equipment and safety surface. Some pressure on insurance companies to take a risk would be useful too!”

Only (6/8%) of respondents expressed total satisfaction with their procurement process as it currently stands:

“I think our procurement process is about as good as you can get it - we are just working on the quality controls post-installation to finally make the process more robust - but we have a ‘partnership’ (with a national play equipment supplier) and the most important thing is the philosophy that ‘we both win or we both lose’ - so we work harmoniously together to achieve common goals.”

  1. Figures will be given as both absolute number and percentage in form of (absolute number/percentage). These figures, unless otherwise specified, relate to the number of respondents for each question, as this varies. Number of respondents for each question is provided in the text.
  2. The mean is more commonly known as the ‘average’ and is produced by adding all the numbers together and dividing by the number of respondents
  3. The median refers to the number found in the centre of the spread when all answers are listed in numerical order
  4. When the mean is greater than the median, this means that the data is positively skewed, or, in layman’s terms, concentrated at the lower end of the range
  5. The NPFA (or Fields in Trust as they are now known) are currently out to consultation on the Six Acre Standard. See
  6. (3 respondents comments did not concern the negative or positive impacts of guidance and standards, but related to the specific usage of standards by the respondent)