Don’t Close Our Playgrounds! But Will Our Labour Council Listen?

There can be no doubt about it, all of Leicester’s much-loved adventure playgrounds will close if the Labour Council’s plan to cut their funding in half by 2020 goes ahead. This is why yet another massive protest was organised last Thursday to coincide with the most recent full council meeting (“Boisterous Town Hall protest against funding cuts to Leicester’s adventure playgrounds, November 25, Leicester Mercury).

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While campaigners rallied outside the meeting, Kuljit Walia, who has worked at the St Matthew’s playground for the past thirteen, was tasked with presenting the petition that was signed by over 14,000 people to the Labour-run Council. The petition simply asked for the Council to “withdraw the proposed cuts to the 9 adventure playgrounds,” and Kuljit made clear:

“…we have to state that it is hard to believe that any of the playgrounds could survive, despite Councillor Russell’s offered assistance to help find alternative funding to cover these cuts.”

During the ensuing debate, eleven Labour Councillors spoke in support of the petition. Some comments from the councillors pointed out how the playgrounds “are needed more than ever,” and “truly are a vital community project and are an integral part of the areas they serve.” Others noted that:

“These playgrounds are vital for our children, many are placed in the most deprived parts of our communities and serve the most vulnerable children. A fifty per cent funding cut, whether over three years, or how long, will result in them having to close without a doubt.”

This observation was reiterated by another Labour councillor who said “a 50 per cent cut, half a million pounds, will in effect close the playgrounds; they cannot survive and maintain the staffing ratios required by Ofsted and so on.”

Nevertheless there still appears to be some confusion among the city’s 52 Labour councillors as to the very real crisis represented by a 50 per cent funding cut. One Labour councillor felt inclined to explain:

“The Council is not attempting to close the playgrounds, but some local people think they are, and I think we need to clear up that myth.”

This strange point was also reiterated by another Labour councillor who said, “It’s also very difficult when people put out the story that this is going to close and that is going to close when none of that is true.” This same councillor, however, then went on to contradict himself by arguing that if the proposed cuts went ahead the adventure playgrounds would be placed “in such a financial position that they’ve got no choice but to close.”

On a more positive note, one councillor suggested that “a 20p increase in car parking across the city would produce £800,000” and thus prevent the closure of any adventure playgrounds. He also went on to add: “we should be finding the money from other budgets and putting it in to support children in our city, because it is our future.”

This is a point on which I certainly agree, because separated from the Council’s so-called “Managed Reserves Strategy,” the Council presently has £103 million located in their “usable reserves” – money that could be spent now to prevent all further service cuts. Setting such a LEGAL (that is, not illegal) no-cuts budget would give the Labour Council time to build a broad public campaign to fight Tory cuts and get the money the government has stolen from our Council back from the government.

Leicestershire Against the Cuts will be holding a public meeting on whether Leicester’s Labour council can fight back against Tory cuts at the St Matthews Centre (LE12PD) at 2pm on Saturday December 3. https://www.facebook.com/events/373177766356230/

 

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Partial Transcript of Full Council Meeting (November 24, 2016)

Kuljit Walia, who has worked at the St Matthew’s playground explained to the Council…

“…Regarding the current proposals of two years negotiated cuts down to 50 per cent in the third year, we have to state that it is hard to believe that any of the playgrounds could survive, despite Councillor Russell’s offered assistance to help find alternative funding to cover these cuts. All our analyses of current funding streams available tells us that we cannot get grants of this magnitude to fund what are largely called core running costs for nine separate adventure playgrounds in the city. This is the reason why we have had to launch this campaign and why 14,625 adults and residents are pleading with you to reconsider this proposal. There are many grants available for additional work and equipment, but this is on top of, and because of, the core funding that the Council provides us. And during periods of stability the playgrounds have collectively have brought in to the city hundreds of thousands of pounds: none of this money was for core running costs. In 2014 a report by the Children’s Scrutiny Committee which followed proposed cuts to the playgrounds stated that if savings were required from the playgrounds that these be limited to no more than 10 per cent and be phased over two years. This was the result of an analysis of the playgrounds finances and a recognition that anything more would be devastating for the playgrounds. We could tell you that our areas police officers, social workers, and teachers have expressed great concern about these proposals and the consequences of the playgrounds closing. Many have rightly pointed out that it makes no financial sense. Other concerns raised were around increased anti-social behaviour and the consequences of vulnerable children being left unsupervised and therefore more at risk, particularly from older people who see them as easy prey…”

Councillor Annette Bryne — the playgrounds “are needed more than ever… The city’s playgrounds provide the longest serving and most reliable and popular children’s services in the city.”

Councillor Ted Cassidy — “The Council is not attempting to close the playgrounds, but some local people think they are, and I think we need to clear up that myth. But despite attempts to find alternative funding and reduce costs, the proposed reduction in grant is a massive challenge to the playgrounds in finding ways to survive. The playgrounds truly are a vital community project and are an integral part of the areas they serve.”

Councillor Dr Susan Barton — “I want to speak up for our younger citizens: around 1,100 of them in New Parks go to Venny’s. I had a look at their registers yesterday and between 70 and a 167 young people there on a daily basis. Calling it a playground is a misnomer because it goes far beyond play what those places can offer to people: there’s education, social skills development, language development — sometimes for some people whose first language isn’t English – homework help if people need it; it can give an early alert to problems allowing early interventions, perhaps even sometimes providing food for people who might otherwise go hungry. It’s vital that we keep an income for the core funding so that we can maintain current staffing levels, so that we can continue to provide those services. And yesterday we saw in the Autumn Statement, we could clearly see that cutting public services is a disastrous policy by this government, they are only offering us longer austerity. That’s austerity, millions of jobs lost in the public sector: austerity, a 90 per cent increase in debt to GDP by 2018, we are talking about trillions now rather than billions, so this is clearly something that is not working. Their austerity is all pain and no gain, and now it’s threatening to inflict more pain on the youngest people in our communities. Adventure playgrounds provide services to people in the poorest communities of the city, but they are there for everybody, so people can get to mix with people that they perhaps wouldn’t meet in other areas of their life. And we are not talking about abstract people here, we are talking about our families, our friends, and our neighbours, so I think I will support the petition.”

Councillor George Cole — “It’s difficult isn’t it? It’s difficult when you’re the leading powerbroker in a city, in terms of the political party, and yet you’ve got to carry through the thinking and the thoughts of central government. And it’s even more difficult when central government doesn’t share your views about how society should be run. It’s also very difficult when people put out the story that this is going to close and that is going to close when none of that is true. We are in difficult times financially, but what we mustn’t forget is that in all aspects of life there must be a succession policy, and that succession policy in this case I think must give priority to our young.

“We must also remember that we do not put the adventure playgrounds in such a financial position that they’ve got no choice but to close. And sometimes it’s important that we recognise that once we’ve closed a project, trying to start it again is almost impossible. These adventure playgrounds rely upon the goodwill of volunteers and people who are prepared to brave the weather and all conditions for our young people, and I want to suggest Lord Mayor, that we do whatever we can assist these adventure playgrounds in raising the necessary funds to ensure that they stay open.”

Councillor Halford – spoke in defence of playgrounds

Councillor Diane Cank — “These playgrounds are vital for our children, many are placed in the most deprived parts of our communities and serve the most vulnerable children. Fifty per cent, whether over three years, or how long, will result in them having to close without a doubt. This would be devastating. We need to protect our young children.”

Councillor Dawn Alfonso – spoke in defence of playgrounds

Councillor Baljit Singh – explained how “the Conservative government have compelled us in this particular situation…”

Councillor Vijay Singh Riyait – “I want to pay tribute to the campaigning of the adventure playgrounds, and their campaigning for their future. We’ve seen 14,000 signatures and sometimes we do need reminding of the value that people put in their services, plus I want to pay tribute to Councillor Russell, because I think she has very constructively engaged with the adventure playgrounds, and I know she has appointed a play worker, I know there is currently a play commission, and I know these changes go against the very core of what she believes in.”

Councillor Bill Shelton – spoke in defence of playgrounds

Councillor Nigel Porter (Liberal Democrat) – – spoke in defence of playgrounds. He said that the Labour Council was only proposing the cuts to the playgrounds so it could then pretend they had changed their mind and was going to save the playgrounds after all.

Councillor Ross Willmott – explained that Councillor Kitterick “has done some work which members of this group have all seen, a 20p increase in car parking across the city would produce £800,000. That’s enough money to have no cuts in the playground, and indeed save some of the work in the children’s centres… As we’ve heard from member after member, a 50 per cent cut, half a million pounds, will in effect close the playgrounds, they cannot survive and maintain the staffing ratios required by Ofsted and so on. … We should be putting more money into it, we should be finding the money from other budgets and putting it in to support children in our city, because it is our future.”

Councillor Sarah Russell – said “these are truly awful things to be putting forward. The budget position we are put in by the government. I have been absolutely clear from the outset that our adventure playgrounds closing is not something that any of us want to see. I am also concerned though that the consultation that is live at the moment, and goes on till the 6th December, doesn’t just take in funding options for our adventure playgrounds, it involves cutting six, closing 10, 11 of our children’s centres. And I think we as a Council need to make sure that we take on board the full results of the consultation, and whilst I absolutely pay full tribute to the campaigning that the adventure playgrounds have run, we need to make sure that we don’t just listen to those that shout loudest, because some of our most vulnerable families in the city who need those Surestart facilities maybe haven’t been able to contribute, and we need to make sure that we find ways to hear their voices as well.”

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