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Councillors in Inverness feel 'held to ransom' by authority over funding for play parks

By Louise Glen

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Councillor Ken Gowans at Burn Brae play park which has had fresh bark put down...Picture: Gary Anthony..
Councillor Ken Gowans at Burn Brae play park which has had fresh bark put down...Picture: Gary Anthony..

Inverness councillors claim they are being 'held to ransom' over funding for play parks.

After learning that some of the most used play parks in the region had been allocated a budget of only £45 a year by Highland Council, they are pleading with the local authority to look again at the issue.

Last month, playparks throughout the Highlands were closed and fenced off with notices put up claiming they had been shut due to safety concerns.

However, as Cllr Ken Gowans, Inverness South ward, explains the local authority is now asking councillors to fund playparks out of the ward discretionary budget, something he and his colleagues feel is unfair.

He said: "We are being held over a barrel. The play parks will not be opened unless ward members agree to fund them from its budget. This sets a worrying precedent, that without ward members all agreeing where money should be spent, the money may not appear.

"Is that the right thing? I don't think so.

He continued: "I feel it is appalling that ward councillors have been held to ransom to ensure children have somewhere safe to play over Easter.

"This due to a lack of core funding and foresight from the council administration. The children have suffered enough during this pandemic and it is time the council recognised very real benefit outdoor play provides for the families, especially at this time.”

Cllr Glynis Sinclair, Culloden and Ardersier ward, said: "Play parks throughout Highland, and those within the Inverness area have been the subject of a recent review, and reports to elected members.

"However, prior to receiving the reports, local play parks were unceremoniously closed down by amenities inspectors -without notice to elected members.

"This caused great consternation for the public and indeed the children, who have been relying on the use of play parks during the current lock down.

"Duncan Forbes play park was closed because the inspection declared that the play bark surrounding the equipment was "not thick enough", - and posed a safety issue. That is an acceptable conclusion, but it is not acceptable for a play park to be closed without referring to elected members timeously, so that action can be taken to replace and renew the play bark.

"Elected Members unanimously agreed to fund the purchase of the play bark at a cost of over £5000 from the ward discretionary budget.

"Ward councillors have now been presented with a report detailing condition of all play parks, within their respective wards, along with approximate costs for repair, replace and or removal of equipment. However, much of the content within the report was unsatisfactory, and is now the subject of much discussion amongst elected members."
A spokeswoman for Highland Council said: “The council has 339 play parks and more than 2500 pieces of play equipment. The provisions of play parks in not a statutory duty; but the inspection and maintenance of equipment once installed, is a mandatory requirement. Play parks are subjected to daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly inspection based on usage and risk, and an annual inspection carried out by a qualified Playground Inspector.

“We recognise the positive effects play parks and their social benefits have on children’s mental health and well-being. This has been particularly highlighted by the ongoing Covid–19 pandemic and lockdowns. The budget was reduced significantly in 2018 from £ £402k to £187k. This includes labour, plant, vehicles and spares and repairs. This is where the £45 per park comes from.

“Ongoing inspections have raised a number of safety concerns at some sites, which has resulted in play equipment being removed or, as a last resort, the park being temporarily closed until it can be made safe to reopen. As agreed by the council in January 2021, officers are attending all ward/area business meeting during March and are working closely with members to develop strategies for the play parks in their areas.

“Highland Council recently made decisions that will help direct more money towards play parks: the council agreed that local area committees could allocate any unspent Covid ward funding towards play parks and invested a further £240k to make sure each ward had the same amount of Covid ward funding available, a further £100K earmarked for play areas is still to be allocated and can be considered once all the local meetings have taken place, other local sources of funding were reported to the council in January 2021 and include e.g. coastal communities funding, common good funds, any appropriate national funding streams as well as local donations, the council also agreed in March 2021 to allocate a further £110K for each of its 21 wards for discretionary spending (£2.31million) which could also be invested in play parks

“These funding option can all be considered. Play areas are in scope within the amenities review and this reports to the Redesign Board. An update on that review will be considered at the next board meeting.

“It is for ward members to decide or agree if they want to spend any of the additional funding on maintenance of play parks. Ward 12 has done this and their parks have been re-opened. The Beauly community arranged the provision of play bark and one of their parks was reopened.”

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