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Keep playgrounds free, Gove tells councils

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Education secretary Michael Gove has said councils should provide children’s playgrounds for free.

A row broke out last weekend when it emerged Tory-controlled Wandsworth LBC in south-west London wanted to charge youngsters £2.50 to play in Battersea Park.

In response to questions about the matter at education questions, Mr Gove said: “We want to make sure children can have the opportunity to play and enjoy play without fees or bureaucracy getting in the way.

“It is one the responsibilities of local authorities to ensure children have an opportunity play freely.”

Shadow education minister Sharon Hodgson had branded the local authority “mean-spirited”.

“It plans to introduce a charge of £2.50 for all children to play on a publicly-funded playground - children who play together regardless of age or background.

“For many local children that is the back garden because they live in high-rise flats.”

Wandsworth claims the fee at the “almost unique facility” is being introduced because on Saturdays and Sundays half of the families attending it come from other parts of the city - but council tax payers foot the bill for its upkeep of more than £200,000 a year.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone said the move left him “deeply concerned”, while hundreds of people signed a petition against the charge on the council’s website.

Rex Osborn, leader of Wandsworth’s Labour group, said: “It’s time for the Wandsworth Tories to back down from this ill-advised policy. Not only are local residents appalled at the idea their children should have to pay to play, but the government’s Secretary of State for Education has also now come out in public support of the right of children to play for free.

“Britain’s parks and playgrounds should be free and accessible to all – and must not become yet another service from which struggling and hard pressed families are excluded. Over the last year, Wandsworth Council has already removed the right of children to swim for free in the borough. Now they are trying to impose a tax on their playgrounds as well.”

A council spokesman said  “The debate about this issue is missing a few important points. This is not a conventional playground and we are not talking about an area that just boasts swings and roundabouts. This is a highly sophisticated, fully staffed leisure complex, more akin to a leisure centre than a playground and one that costs more than £200,000 a year to run. 

“Councils regularly charge for the use of sport and recreation facilities. We are simply suggesting that users pay a very small charge to enjoy this leisure facility, which attracts visitors from all over London.

“Over the past four years Wandsworth has spent £2.5m on maintaining and improving our playgrounds which demonstrates how much of a priority we place on them. All our normal playgrounds, plus the borough’s two other adventure playgrounds will continue to be free.”

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