How some Lancashire streets could be closed to enable children to play outside safely
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It comes after Lancashire County Council agreed to make it easier for locals to apply for the creation of so-called “play streets” - and to raise awareness of the option to do so.
A mechanism already exists in national legislation for residents to obtain road closure orders for short periods of time, but in Lancashire, that option has almost exclusively been used for one-off events like street parties. However, the authority has now come to a cross-party deal designed to increase the take-up of play streets in the county.
Once an application is approved, a road can be cordoned off for a regular, fixed period of time, during which youngsters can more safely enjoy the kind of doorstep play that the councillor behind the play streets push says has largely been confined to an increasingly distant era.
Rossendale West division member Samara Barnes told a meeting of the full council that many of them - like her - probably grew up at a time when school holidays involved “getting up at the crack of dawn [and] heading out to play with our friends until it went dark”.
Speaking via a statement read out by Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali - due to her unavoidable absence from the gathering - County Cllr Barnes added: “It’s not quite the same anymore - there’s a lot more traffic on the road now, even [on] the small estates…and people whizz around with little regard for children playing.
“Children don't seem to be quite as streetwise as they used to be - or maybe they are, but parents seem a lot less inclined to let them go and explore, as we did when we were younger.
“We have an opportunity with play streets to get our kids outside, to get them enjoying playing with family and friends - and it isn’t going to cost a penny.
“The benefits are far-reaching and extend past the children - parents will be able to be involved and this will improve their health and outcomes.
“We are empowering parents to do something great for their kids, to make them healthier… safer and to build up their community.”
County Cllr Barnes had initially called for a scheme to pilot play streets in Lancashire. However, cabinet member for highways and transport Rupert Swarbrick suggested that, as the concept already existed, it would be more worthwhile instead to simplify - and promote - the process of applying for the status.
In a revised motion, councillors from all four political groups on the authority unanimously agreed to ensure that applications - which are to be made to district authorities, like Preston, Chorley and South Ribble, rather than the county council itself - are “quick and simple”.
Rossendale South representative Anne Cheetham said that sporting success later in life had often been spawned by the “inventive” way in which games like football had been played in the street, using whatever was to hand as makeshift goalposts. She was also confident that play streets would win the favour of the children that they are intended to benefit.
“Once one child or two children can be heard playing…it’s amazing how many others turn up.
“I think parents would welcome it very much indeed, as long as we also respect the neighbours who perhaps are not ready to join in with a cricket match or a football game,” County Cllr Cheetham added.
According to Playing Out - an organisation which began promoting play streets in Bristol in 2009 and from which a national movement has since grown - the “general consensus” of neighbours is required as part of play street applications. The group advises early engagement with all residents living on a proposed play street in order to avoid any division being created over the issue.
The closure periods are enforced by cones or wheelie bins being placed across the entrance to a play street - along with an official "Road Closed" sign - and the area is usually patrolled by volunteer stewards.
Residents’ vehicles can be left on the street and people living there are free to come and go during play street hours, but they - along with any other vehicles deemed to require access - will be accompanied at walking speed by one of the marshalls.
Gina Dowding, the Green Party group leader at County Hall, called for Lancashire to go even further and support the creation of more permanent - and often controversial - low traffic neighbourgoods.
However, Labour’s Mark Clifford stressed that the play streets idea had no connection with low traffic zones, which he said “sets a lot of people off on conspiracy theories all over the internet”.
In 2019, the government moved to make it easier to create play streets, by allowing them to be approved by special event orders, which do not have to be advertised - and so reducing the expense for applicants.
Elsewhere in Lancashire, Blackpool Council began its own play streets trial earlier this year.
Although it has become more common over the last 15 years, the play streets concept has featured in the highway code for decades.
PLAY STREET FAQs
How often and how long do you close the street?
Within the limits set by your council, each street needs to consider what would suit them best. The closure times, days and frequency will depend on the availability of residents, organisers and children and may take into account other factors, e.g. if there is a church or school on your road. Some streets close for an hour or so after school on a weekday, others close at a weekend (this means you can potentially close earlier and for longer). Streets close weekly, fortnightly or monthly. You may want to vary what you do at different times of the year.
***What if I live on a major road or bus route?
This might be a problem in terms of closing the road, but check with your council as they might even make an exception for a one-off or less frequent closure, especially at a weekend. Otherwise, there may well be other things you could think of doing to enable more playing out and a better sense of ‘belonging’ on your street. ‘Pavement play’ is one model some streets follow, where residents just agree a particular time to come out and semi-supervise children playing out on the pavement.
***How do I ensure that only people from my street come along?
Most streets are public highways and public spaces, which is one of the great things about them, so it would be wrong to try to prevent people from coming into the street from elsewhere. This is not about trying to create a ‘gated community’! At the same time, you don’t want to find yourself hosting a public event. As long as you keep publicity only to the street itself and don’t put on any organised activities you are very unlikely to get more than a few ‘extras’ coming along to see what is happening.
***What do we do if children turn up unaccompanied?
The job of the organisers and stewards is to make the space relatively safe by stopping through traffic and ensuring that residents drive at walking speed, not to look after other people’s children. It is worth some effort in advance to ensure that publicity states clearly that parents are responsible for their own children and that, whilst adults around will aim to keep an eye out for any issues, unaccompanied children will not be ‘looked after’.
***Do we need to have any organised games or equipment?
The short answer is no – keeping it ‘normal’ is good and powerful, showing that children mainly need space and freedom to play on their doorstep, rather than being shown what to do.