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Play Streets

25 Jul

I have just been reading a short article about ‘play streets’ which appeared the Guardian recently.

The article starts by noting that “in 1860, a 12-year-old Colchester boy was imprisoned for playing rounders in the road“. Playing in streets had actually been banned for over thirty years, nationally by the ‘Highways Act 1835’ (section 72) and in London by the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 (section 54). Both of these pieces of legisation allowed for a fine of up to 40 shillings for playing “football or any other game” in the street and it was apparently the failure to pay the fine which led to imprisonment of the boy. Indeed, according to a report in Hansard a total of 44 children had been imprisoned in 1859 year in London and Middlesex for playing in the streets! Incidentally, this legislation still in force as the Highways Act 1980 (section 161) which reads “if a person plays at football or any other game on a highway to the annoyance of a user of the highway he is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale“.

The Guardian article then went on the talk about how Play Streets were introduced to the UK from the 1930s with the ‘Street Playgrounds Act, 1938’, a piece of legislation that I hadn’t even heard of before which allowed streets to be designated for children to play in with use of vehicles restricted to residents and their visitors. These grew in popularity and by 1963 there were 750 streets around the country.

A playground street in operation

The utility of these play streets unfortunately diminished over the following decades. The Guardian blamed Thatcher for the decline, however I can’t find any evidence for that; powers to create play streets are currently provided by the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (sections 29-31) as amended by the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 (schedule 8). I do however note that various other sources have suggested that the decline was due to streets becoming increasingly dominated by parked cars. By the 1980s Play Streets were evidently all but forgotten.

I am pleased therefore to finally see all the renewed interest in play streets. Do check out Playing Out and the resources published by London Play. It is also encouraging that the ideas are getting cabinet level support in the person the Anne Milton, the Health Minister.

There is one huge problem of course… where are all the parked cars going to go? I say that because Play Streets not only require restrictions on vehicle movements, they also require the removal of the many many parked vehicles that now litter our residential streets in order to both recover sufficient play space and to stop vehicle owners fussing their property being damaged as a result. After all, we find it hard enough to walk along the pavements of many streets due to parked cars, let alone having enough space for kids to run around and kick balls.

By way of example, I note that the 1980 legislation relating to plays games in the street is still being cited, often in relation to damage to property and cars. For example: In Blackpool (2006) where police explained that ‘Residents have raised concerns about damage being caused to property, vehicles and flower beds etc’, Leicester (2007) where parents were threatened with a £100 by police after children had obstructed on the highway by leaving ‘jumpers for goalposts’ on the carriageway, Newark (2008) where residents complained of flowerbeds being trampled by children retrieving balls and damage to vehicles parked outside their properties; and in Manchester (2010) where three police officers told parents that their children could receive ASBOs for playing football in the street explaining that ‘you should not let your kids play on the road – it is not a playground.’

Interestingly however, Rother Council note that the 1980 legislation should only be used where the playing of games in the streets is creating problems for other road users and not where the only issues relate to nearby properties. As such it would appear that the Act should not have been cited in many of the above cases. To be clear there appears to be no actual ban on playing games in the street, only a ban on causing ‘annoyance to other road users’ by playing games on the street.

A particular treat for me when researching this post however, was to discover that the MP who had originally raised the issue in parliament back in 1860 was a certain T.J.Miller…. who happens to also be my great-great grandfather!

One small correction for The Guardian. I believe that the boy was arrested for playing rounders in London, not in Colchester as reported. TJ Miller was indeed MP for Colchester, but he appears to have been discussing a London/Middlesex issue, not a local one.