Obesity levels linked to shortage of play areas

The question of why the obesity crisis appears to be hitting UK children harder than those in Scandinavia was considered in a talk named "A Tale of Two Cities" at IoG Saltex.

Rose: parks and environment officer in West Bletchley - image: HW
Rose: parks and environment officer in West Bletchley - image: HW

Chair of the Association of Play Industries Mark Hardy noticed during time he spent in Sweden that children there were fitter, healthier and less overweight. So he examined a 1.5-mile Google Earth image of residential areas and examined where playgrounds had been placed.

In Southampton he found four specific areas for children in the space, with one bigger and better resourced that the others. In Malmo there was more high-density housing but more green space interlinking the housing blocks. In Sweden, most of these have some kind of play activity, said Hardy, maybe even one swing set. Councils put basketball hoops at bus stops, he added.

He circled 23 sites in the image of the area he showed delegates. "They've peppered the space with play activities. If you're a kid there you don't just go to play, you meander around the play environment and you probably pick up friends along the way. Instead of restricting kids to one area we allow them to meander around. This is good for social inclusion."

Hardy said part of the reason for the difference is that budgets are organised on a more local level, similar to parish councils. This difference begs the question of whether in the UK we deliberately plan for the obesity crisis for our children, he said. "The solution is just to plan differently. It doesn't take an awful lot of invention to do what they are doing in Sweden in the UK. If you give them the environment, children will play.

However, one local government delegate pointed out that it costs more to maintain lots of smaller spaces. "Often smaller play facilities are less well used. There's less surveillance," she said.

Taking control of public space on a hyper-local level was the subject of another Saltex seminar. One parish council improved both grounds maintenance quality and resident satisfaction after taking control of its green spaces, according to parks and environment officer at West Bletchley Council in Milton Keynes, Simon Rose.

A former landscape gardener and country park manager, he moved from managing the landscape contract for a large part of Milton Keynes to being parks and environment officer at the tier-one council when the parish persuaded the town council to let it manage its part of the grounds maintenance budget.

The move was in response to a decline in standards due to local authority cuts. Rose said: "Residents saw and reported an increase of overgrown grass, thick arising, brambles in shrub beds and weeds on footpaths. West Bletchley Council decided that it would be better to assume responsibility and deliver the landscape contract ourselves, in order to be in better control of the standard and to be able to respond directly to residents."

It tendered for a contractor and engaged RTM Landscapes in 2014. In 2015 it surveyed residents, asking: "Has the landscape got better since West Bletchley council took responsibility from the local authority?" Some 38 per cent said it had stayed the same while 43 per cent said it had improved. In 2016's survey 46 per cent thought things had stayed the same while 34 per cent had seen improvement.

Rose said effecting improvements had been hard work and, at first, residents had been dubious about getting a better service. But he told delegates a key factor in the success was contractors working closely with officers on an open-door policy. "We have a dedicated team of four guys. They are further supported by grounds maintenance staff. We have one-to-one engagement - no call centre. Residents can walk into the office. There is one landscape officer, me. There is nowhere to hide."

Regular use of social media to communicate with residents has also helped, he added. He shares schedules with residents, leading to "better and shorter lines of communication". This also helps develop "a bespoke, tailored service rather than a one-size-fits-all approach", such as leaving some areas as wildlife-friendly meadows to enable more cutting in other areas. So far in 2016, the team has completed 14 grass cuts in public open spaces and 18 cuts in parks, a tally Rose said is considerably more than in areas maintained by the local authority.

"We are determined to deliver a high standard of landscape maintenance and will be looking to continuously improve West Bletchley with the help of our residents," said Rose. "Our residents will ultimately tell us if the landscape in the parish is of a good standard."

He added: "Parks and environment posts consistently remain high on residents' agendas and the most hits are achieved with pictures, especially those showing partnership working with schools and community groups. The highest hits on Facebook are consistently landscaping pictures, which provoke a sense of pride in residents, especially if this is linked with a school or community group."

The council was commended by the National Association of Local Councils for its work on social media and digital engagement. The 22,000-resident 9,000-home council has 10 staff, a revenue expenditure of £800,000 and an ongoing capital programme of £1.2m in 2016.

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