A reopening date for the Hawthorns Play Area has now been set for Friday 15th October, with the playground open to the public in the late afternoon. It is disappointing this is 12 weeks after the Council cancelled the previous opening date on 22nd July due to the developer Countryside Properties not having completed the work to the required standard. Residents have had to endure being able to view the play equipment all through the summer whilst waiting for issues with the ground condition and grass cover to be addressed. This has taken far too long, and I have received a commitment the Council will apply the learning from this debacle to aim to ensure it does not reoccur on future schemes.
Following concerns that I raised about the state of some of our smaller play areas I have been reassured by the District Council that work to improve some of our smaller play areas like Forge Way is underway, the extended closure due to the pandemic left it and some other play areas covered in moss and with minor repairs needed. I understand the moss and toadstools has been treated and the hard areas will be swept this coming week .
It’s excellent news to hear that all our playgrounds are reopening but why did Mid Sussex District Council interpret government guidelines so differently to their colleagues in Horsham? Does cleaning playgrounds once a week really make them Covid secure? Did they need to be kept shut in the first place, and was £44,000 wasted on extra cleaning costs?
Freedom of Information requests submitted to Mid Sussex District Council and Horsham District Council have revealed two starkly different approaches to ensuring children’s playgrounds were ‘covid secure’ when Government advice allowed them to be reopened following the end of the first lockdown in July 2020.
Horsham District Council reopened all fifty-two of its play areas last summer, spent no money on additional cleaning, and just £100 on signage.a Other councils have taken a similar approach.
Mid Sussex District Council decided upon a very different course of action. In the response to the Freedom of Information request they say, “We undertook an initial cleanse prior to opening each facility in July 2020, and since then have carried out a weekly cleanse of all play areas and outdoor gyms that have re-opened. In addition, we have purchased and installed permanent A3-sized signage at each entrance point, providing guidance on social distancing, hand hygiene and the safe use of the facilities.”b The cost of this up to the week commencing 25 January 2021 was £44,152. When asked how those costs were arrived at, Mid Sussex District Council responded, “The costs were obtained from the Council’s existing cleansing contractor, so were based on a commercial assessment of the operational requirements associated with a weekly deep clean.” b
However, Mid Sussex District Council only opened 57 of its 123 play areas last summer despite Liberal Democrats raising concerns about the impact of keeping so many closed, and stated on its website that it would be too expensive to open them all stating that it would cost more than £220,000 a year to clean them regularly to ensure that they are COVID safe. A weekly cleaning regime was not required, as demonstrated by the approach of Horsham District Council and other local authorities. In addition there is no evidence that this is more effective in reducing coronavirus transmission than no cleaning regime given the number of people who would use the playgrounds between cleans.
Play Charity, Play England wrote to all local authorities in England in January 2021 asked that all playgrounds remain open “to reduce the catastrophic impact of COVID and lockdown on children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing”.c Their letter also highlighted the impact of playground closures on the most disadvantaged children – those with limited space at home, no access to a garden or disabled children – to which access to these playgrounds are “often a lifeline”. Mid Sussex District Council failed to carry out an equality impact assessment to understand the impact of their decision to close play areas on the children in our community.
Residents in Burgess Hill have been especially hard hit by Mid Sussex District Council’s decision to keep over half of its playgrounds closed. When the location of the closed playgrounds is plotted on to a mapd, it is clear that the playgrounds in Burgess Hill were much more likely to be kept shut with 79% shut in Burgess Hill, 50% shut Haywards Heath, 36% shut in East Grinstead and 19% shut in the outlying villages.
Following Liberal Democrat pressure to ensure all play areas were reopened, I am pleased the Council has now announced it will be reopening all playgrounds from 29 March. In the light of the government announcing its roadmap out of lockdown the Council has now committed to reopening all play areas, outdoor gyms, skate parks and ball courts from this date. Further they plan to reopen the Council’s three leisure centres- initially for individual exercise (including gym and swimming) from 12 April, before phasing in group exercise in line with the government’s roadmap. The Council had previously claimed it would cost £212,000 to provide additional cleaning resources to enable them to open all play areas in order to justify their previous decision to only keep half open during the lockdown.