I think that is absolutely vital. A lot of local authorities and councillors care about these issues and do exactly that. We gain from having open spaces for free-style play, but having structure in playground provision costs money, and we need to think about investing in such facilities.
If I were to ask for a sum of money from the Department, I would urge the Minister to think about what a mere £100 million could achieve. It would deliver 1,600 playgrounds and play spaces. That is the sort of level we are talking about to counter the downward trend in the statistics I mentioned earlier.
Secondly, children’s voices should be better represented as policies are developed. The parks and green spaces sector has not had a dedicated national voice or leadership in Government since the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was merged with the Design Council back in 2011, and the closure of the charity GreenSpace in 2013 was a great loss. The lack of a dedicated national leadership agency on this issue is holding back the development of children’s playgrounds, parks and open spaces. The Department set up the parks action group, but it does not focus specifically on children and the importance of play. I ask the Minister to think about how we can increase the representation of this issue in that forum.
The other day, the Minister and the Secretary of State launched the integrated communities strategy, which relates to how we can help communities to come together. We talked earlier about the social cohesion gains that could come from that. Although the “Integrated Communities Strategy” Green Paper mentioned bringing neighbourhoods together, it could have focused much more on play. I ask the Minister for parks to think about adding play to his portfolio to address the real threats that exists. Taking action to open up the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor play to the widest possible range of children from all backgrounds will make a real difference.
Thirdly, I ask the Minister to help us get more allies for the play sector. That is similar to my second ask of the Government. The Heritage Lottery Fund recently removed its “Parks for People” programme. It is one of the greatest ironies that, after the financial crisis, the lottery provided some of the most stable funding for community development, and we have relied on it for the past decade. That was the only dedicated parks restoration fund, and without it there is less opportunity to bid for grants.
Fourthly, I want to ask the Minister about the evidence and research he will need to arm him in his discussions with the rest of Government, with his Secretary of State and around the Cabinet table. We need to prove that every pound spent on children’s playgrounds will lead to great returns. Next month, the charity Fields in Trust will publish a report that shows that the value that lower socioeconomic groups place on parks and green spaces is higher than the national average. A reduction in the quantity and quality of those spaces may disproportionately affect those who need them most. This is not just about money. We need to gather that evidence together. The alarming statistics in the Association of Play Industries’ report, which I mentioned earlier, combined with the continued increase in child obesity, lead me to ask whether we can commission a deeper and more thorough report into the state of play facilities and open spaces across the entire United Kingdom. Research with a particular emphasis on the prevalence of obesity and other health issues in certain geographical areas will allow us to examine the correlations and help us to make more appropriate decisions about play policy.
I believe there is a strong correlation between higher instances of obesity and mental health issues in childhood, and the deprivation experienced by areas where free-play opportunities are limited or lacking. That is a significant challenge for public policy makers. A well-maintained and loved community play and recreation area fosters social cohesion, as hon. Members said, encourages children to be active and lifts the spirit and mood of the whole community. I hope the Minister agrees and helps to drive forward a renaissance in children’s play across the country.