There are different fashions and trends in play, particularly in the younger teenage years. Skateboard parks were a particular thing a decade ago and trends change. In Nottingham, in my constituency, a new play area has just been installed in Shipstone Street, and Nottingham is trying its best to roll out more facilities. It has improved 75 play areas, with three more set for improvement works shortly, and the city has 54 Green Flag Awards, the greatest number in the country.
Resources are still an underlying problem. Since 2009, Nottingham has had to cut its parks and open spaces budget by £3 million, with a further £300,000 to be cut in the next financial year. Like a lot of local authorities, it has had to start looking elsewhere to plug that gap, looking for grants from other charities and funding bodies over the past 10 years. That is a story repeated across the country. For example, Knowsley Borough Council has had to make a decision to sell off some parks and green spaces, which is a real shame, as childhood obesity levels are very high in that part of the world. Other local authorities are being forced into similar choices—half of the councils in north-west England, according to a BBC report, are considering selling off parks or finding other organisations to maintain them over the next three years.
Nationally, we are just not replacing playgrounds at the same rate as they are disappearing. Some 92% of park managers report cuts to their budgets over the last three years, and research undertaken by the Association of Play Industries has uncovered a sharp decline in playgrounds across England: 214 playgrounds have been closed, with a further 234 playgrounds earmarked for closure by local authorities. That is 448 playgrounds closed or closing, which is an alarming downward trend in play provision. There is no longer dedicated funding for playgrounds from central Government, or grants from the third sector, so playground provision falls to local authorities, whose budgets are of course squeezed.
Play really does matter and it is worth underlining what to many of us might seem obvious. Playgrounds are one of the best ways of encouraging children to do physical activity. Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels. More than one fifth of reception children are overweight or obese; by year 6 that rises to over a third. Children living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese than those in more affluent areas. For many children, playgrounds represent the only chance to play outdoors. Children living within 1 km of a playground are five times more likely to be of a healthy weight than children who are not near a playground.
Play is fundamental to the wider wellbeing of children. If play is restricted, that is likely to have a profound effect on physical and mental health, now and into the future. There is a crisis in children’s mental health, with some reports saying that as many as 20% of children have some degree of mental illness and that problem might be rising. Without adequate access to play, children cannot develop the important emotional skills needed to protect them from anxiety and depression. Research from the charity Fields in Trust shows, for the first time at national level, a direct and statistically significant link between the availability of public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing.
That is why I called this debate today. We must not take playgrounds and play facilities for granted. We have to talk about them. This is an area of policy that could fall between the gaps. It was difficult even to decide whether I should target this debate at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so this is not owned as much as it should be.
I have four requests of the Minister, and I will be as specific as I can. The first is about resources. I do not like to bang on about money constantly because I know the situation is tight, but we should invest to save. Investing a pound in good play facilities now will yield better returns and savings for the health service and the education system in the long run. We cannot rely on developers’ section 106 contributions for new play facilities. They make a bit of a difference, but only in areas in which development is taking place.