Neglected playgrounds across Britain are becoming death traps for children, a government expert warned last night.
Chris Worman, who advises the Parks Action Group, which was formed last year following a damning report by MPs, said the situation was so serious that ‘every day I worry I will hear on the news that a child has died.’
His intervention came as the mother of a five-year-old girl killed by a faulty rope swing backed The Mail on Sunday’s Save Our Parks campaign, and the great-grandson of the man who pioneered playgrounds said he would be ‘spinning in his grave’ at the appalling state of many parks.
It looks safe enough, but this play area at Downshill Park was full of dangers
Fears: Chris Worman says play equipment inspections aren’t being done because of cuts
Mr Worman said: ‘Very soon I fear that we will hear another child has died because of faulty play equipment.
‘Some of the things I am seeing now are unbelievable. They are things I have not seen since the bad old days of the 1980s.
‘I am seeing exposed concrete which could cause serious head injuries. I am seeing metal sticking out of the ground, and swing chains that have been twisted and are so sharp that they could cause nasty, deep cuts.
‘These are really worrying things that are just not being picked up because inspections are not happening due to cutbacks.
‘Parks should be inspected weekly but I am seeing things that should have been picked up months ago.’
Last week we found graphic examples of dangerous playgrounds. At Finsbury Park in North London, children are exposed to damaged climbing netting, rotting wood on a climbing frame and exposed concrete under a seesaw. A few miles away at Downshill Park in Tottenham, shards of metal protruded from climbing netting and some rungs had been clumsily repaired with electrical tape.
A spokesman for Haringey Council said: ‘A number of the items you have highlighted have been repaired and others will be repaired once the parts arrive from suppliers.’
Frayed ropes: Exposed wires that could trap tiny fingers
Exposed concrete was found next to one of the kids rides in the park
In Birmingham, vandalised play equipment has been removed from Bournbrook Recreation Ground in Selly Oak but in its place now lies broken glass, discarded beer cans and drug needles. Resident Gaige Brown, 25, said: ‘I dare not let my son in there any more. In the summer, he and his friend found a knife behind the basketball court.’
Joe Hayden, park services manager for Birmingham City Council, said: ‘Sadly over recent years, the site has suffered from repeated and significant vandalism.’
The dangers in our playgrounds are all too real for Vida Kwotuah, whose daughter Alexia Walenkaki, five, was crushed to death at Mile End Park in East London when a tree trunk holding the swing she was on collapsed.
Sharp metal on a gate was covered over with gaffer tap in the park
Official reports found the wrong wood had been used for the rope swing and staff at Tower Hamlets Council had not inspected play equipment for 18 months.
‘My beautiful daughter is dead because of penny-pinching and cutbacks,’ said Mrs Kwotuah. ‘Our parks need proper investment. I am 100 per cent behind The Mail on Sunday’s campaign.’
Writing for the MoS today, Oliver Wicksteed, who is chairman of a charity named in honour of his great-grandfather Charles, says: ‘Across the country, councils are selling off parks for short-term commercial gain. This is a wilful act of social destruction.’
Tory peer Lord Greville Howard, vice president of the National Playing Fields Association, said: ‘We must save our parks. For some councils the commercial pressures to sell become too great to resist but we must resist for the sake of the health and wellbeing of the nation.’
My grandad, inventor of the slide, would be horrified
By Oliver Wicksteed – great grandson of playpark pioneer Charles Wickstead
The happy memories of being pushed on a swing by our parents or rushing down a slide at the local playground last a lifetime. Parks are where we learn how to play, how to explore, how to push boundaries and socialise.
That is why my great-grandfather Charles Wicksteed would be spinning in his grave if he were alive today to see what is happening to the nation’s parks. He was the pioneer of children’s playgrounds as you see them today, and he founded Wicksteed Park in Kettering in 1921 as Britain’s first modern leisure park.
It is almost unfathomable to think that before he invented them 100 years ago, the slide and swings that are a feature of our childhood memories did not exist.
Parks used to be formal, ornamental places where visitors were told to keep off the grass. They were not play areas, and for the poorest children there was nowhere else to play apart from in the gutter.
Wicksteed Park is still going strong thanks to the efforts of the Wicksteed Charitable Trust, but thousands of other parks across Britain are at risk of falling into disrepair or being sold off by cash-strapped councils.
Fair play: Children using slides at Wickstead park in the 1920s
My great-grandfather would be horrified to learn that 214 play areas have disappeared in recent years, with 234 further closures planned. On Thursday, we will mark the centenary of the opening of the Wicksteed Playground Company factory in Kettering and I’m delighted that Health Secretary Matt Hancock will be there to unveil a blue plaque to mark and celebrate Charles Wicksteed’s legacy.
I hope it will give him food for thought as we look to the future and think about what sort of country we want to be. I ask Mr Hancock and other Ministers: What will be your legacy?
Across the country, councils are selling parks for short-term commercial gain.
This is a wilful act of social destruction with far-reaching consequences. More, not less, must be done to rescue our children from their bedrooms and save them from their screens.
By closing our parks and play areas we are denying our children and grandchildren the pleasure of free, simple play and learning. And, as we battle increasing levels of child obesity, more investment is needed to encourage them to play outdoors.
Yet the current crop of politicians seem obsessed with the bottom line and increasingly fail to grasp that not everything has a price tag. Our play areas have a value beyond a balance sheet. They give us benefits that money cannot buy.
And it’s not only investment. Our parks are also crying out for the same vision as Wicksteed Park has – a true realisation of the value of our parks and green spaces.
I have fond memories of visiting Wicksteed Park as a child in the 1960s. We would go out in the morning, run riot all day and not come home until it was dark.
With my own children and grandchildren, I remember putting them on a swing for the first time.
At that moment it is the most exciting sensation they have ever experienced.
Whatever we humans invent in technology, you will never replace that. As a parent, sharing that experience with your child is beautifully simple and enriching.
In 1928, Charles wrote: ‘I have direct evidence from mothers how whining, pale-faced children, complaining of any food they get, have come back with healthy faces and rosy complexions, ready to eat the house out after a good play in the playground.’
Ninety years later, there are new, modern challenges but the central aim remains: we need to get children out playing in parks – and that is why they must be saved.
Terrible moment swing collapsed and crushed my daughter to death
Three years have passed, but the memory of the moment her daughter was killed while playing happily in a park is no less vivid for Vida Kwotuah.
Little Alexia Walenkaki – a day off her sixth birthday– was on a rope swing in Mile End Park in East London on July 17, 2015, when a tree trunk holding the swing fell on her, crushing her to death.
Little Alexia Walenkaki – a day off her sixth birthday– was on a rope swing in Mile End Park in East London on July 17, 2015
Mrs Kwotuah said: ‘I ran towards her. She was on the floor and I was screaming, “Somebody call an ambulance”. She took a deep breath then blood started pouring out of her mouth, nose and ears.
‘I knew at that moment that she was gone.’
Mrs Kwotuah, who is backing The Mail on Sunday’s Save Our Parks campaign, added: ‘I will never forget it. It is the worst thing you could ever imagine. My life is empty now.’
An inquest into Alexia’s death uncovered a litany of errors, yet no one has been charged or even lost their job.
Tower Hamlets Council said: ‘Alexia should have been kept safe while using Mile End Park. No words can adequately express our regret that she was not.’
Tragedy: Onlookers fight to help Alexia