London council rips out playgrounds to build houses – then runs out of cash

Families in south London say their children have stopped playing outside after communal spaces and playgrounds were ripped out to make room for new homes and then left boarded up when Southwark council ran out of money.

The council began tearing down large parts of the Bells Gardens and Lindley estates in Peckham last August but abandoned the build in January due to a funding crisis driven by rising interest rates. All that remains of the previous play area is a small pitch surrounded by hoardings and out of sight of the flats.

Experts warn the boarded-up area – which locals say is an “abomination” – illustrates a crisis in how social housing is funded as well as an urgent need for better laws to protect children’s play spaces.

One parent, Rosie, who has two children aged six and three, says she relied heavily on the play spaces. “We went to that playground all the time. It was so convenient for burning off their energy. There were also loads of kids who were older and had their independence and would play out as one. The eight-, nine-, 10-year-olds. It’s just how I grew up. I could see them playing when I looked out of my window but they’ve all gone now.”

She feels let down by the council. “I think they mustn’t have children to have let this happen. Or those that do, their children don’t live here so it doesn’t affect them.”

Residents say green space is desperately needed. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Southwark council says it is “extremely disappointed” to have had to stop the works – part of a commitment to build thousands of new social homes in the coming years.

Helen Dennis, a councillor and cabinet member for new homes and sustainable development, told the Guardian the council was being hit by mounting costs. “Increased inflation, significantly higher building costs and interest rates following the government’s mini-budget a year ago have meant that councils across the country have had to change plans.

“The residents of Bells Gardens worked so passionately with us to plan what was to happen on the estate. It’s incredibly disappointing. We will provide a playground and we are working as quickly as possible to get things moving again.”

Residents protested during planning, and if finished the site would have delivered 1,575 sq metres of purpose-built play space for about 600 homes. Official guidance in the mayor’s London plan is that there should be 10 sq metres per child but pressure for denser builds means developers do not always meet this standard.

The issue of protection of children’s spaces to play is the focus of an inquiry by the committee that scrutinises the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities that is taking evidence from planners, play experts and psychologists.

The housing was to have been built as part of a controversial process known as “infill building” – seen as a key way to provide desperately needed affordable homes because it uses land councils already own. There is a massive national shortage of affordable homes with one in 23 children in London homeless and Southwark alone has 15,000 people on its housing waiting list, including many families living in bed and breakfast accommodation.

Maryanne Vanson with her daughter on the balcony of her flat in Bells Gardens, Peckham. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

But residents say green spaces are desperately needed for the families who are living in flats with no gardens. Maryanne Vanson lives in a fourth-floor flat with her five children. She says a solution is needed that does not take space from those who already do not have enough. “I understand the need for housing, I’m overcrowded myself. But don’t take all our green space, our play space. There isn’t enough as it is in this area.”

Dinah Bornat, an architect, told the Guardian more housing projects would be halted. “What has happened on this estate is a physical manifestation of a much wider housing crisis that is leaving thousands and thousands of children without homes. The way in which social housing is funded – the cross-subsidy model – is a failure. There are more situations like this coming down the pipeline, more housing projects will be abandoned as the money dries up.”

Play spaces can be particularly badly affected when there are delays or funding problems for developments. Last year in New Cross, south London, residents protested over the continued failure of Peabody to return their park after taking it over to store building materials for several years.

The London assembly member Siân Berry said there should be specific protection in policy for play spaces when developments hit a crisis. “This kind of blight to London’s neighbourhoods is a huge problem I’m seeing on other estates, particularly with so many being demolished and rebuilt.

“If amenities are demolished and there is delay we need a policy from the mayor to get these vital spaces reinstated as a priority. He funds these schemes and could make sure that contingency plans to protect community facilities are mandatory.”

Bernice Miller, who runs sports and arts projects for local children, said: “What’s happened here on this estate is an abomination. There were years of discussions with our residents to get them to commit to play areas as part of their housing project. All of that for nothing. The council came to see us in January and said it could be two years until they even start the work again.

“Free play is gone now because there is no space to gather and come together, particularly the younger ones. They also boarded up the main dog walking area so the remaining spaces are now covered in dog waste.”

Miller learned recently that her application to continue funding the arts and sports projects she runs had been turned down by Southwark council. She says children urgently need space to play. “We are asking: please pull down the hoarding, give us some land for the children to play on.”

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