Why I’m going ape about the privatisation of children’s play
The Guardian, by Lucy Mangan
Generally the phrases knocking around in my head at this time of year are of a cheery, convivial nature – “Merry Christmas”; “Happy New Year”; “Another Baileys? Don’t mind if I do”; “Wish I hadn’t had that last Baileys.” That kind of thing. But as this year draws to a close, I have one of a different kind bouncing around in there – “considered purchase”. It’s a marketing term, and it has been buzzing insistently in my mind since I read the story about the children’s climbing company Go Ape taking over Battersea Park’s adventure playground.
In case your Baileys haze descended earlier than mine and you missed the news, let me recap. Battersea Park had an adventure playground, full of stuff. New bits often arrived to keep things fun, and it was often painted by the children. And it was all free to use. Obviously. That hardly needs saying, does it? Except that, from now on, it does.
In December, Go Ape opened for business on the site. The old adventure playground was razed to the ground and replaced by a basic swings-and-slides arrangement aimed at younger children. Those who want to enjoy a similar kind of outdoor play to what was there before must now buy into the company’s treetop adventure course at between £18 and £33 a child. So those who can afford it get to swing through the heavens and look down on those whose lack of cash leaves them scurrying about below.
I like it when companies give me the metaphors ready-made. Makes my job so much easier. They should probably charge me. “It’s a considered purchase,” says the managing director, Jerome Mayhew, of the astronomical fee. “But I’d rather spend money getting my children outside doing something fun, physical and adventurous than buying them an Xbox.”
Let’s spend a moment unpacking that, shall we? Consider it the last gift of the festive season. “It’s a considered purchase” means “we acknowledge that it’s a shedload of cash” – especially for something that used to be free – “but we think there are enough local people who can scrape it together to make our presence here commercially viable.” The rest can go swing.
“But I’d rather spend money getting my children outside … than buying them an Xbox.” A nice cluster of false oppositions here, and Mayhew is to be applauded for cramming so many into so few words. Here we have, seamlessly imported, the idea that money can only be spent either buying children time outside or supplying them with devilishly unhealthy devices. That parents either want the best for their children or just an easy life. That you either spend money on your children or fail them. Neatly snipped out of the picture is any conception of people without money or of worthwhile experiences to be had without money changing hands.
So 2015 becomes the year we began to accept not just the privatisation of public spaces but the actual privatisation of play for our children. Not that Mayhew himself is to blame, of course. He is just at the sharp, opportunistic end of a vast wedge of government policy that makes it all possible.
Parks are not a statutory provision for local authorities, and so they are cut to the bone. A report by the Heritage Lottery Fund last year found that 45% of councils are considering either selling their green spaces or transferring their management to private businesses. Expect more miniature golf courses, cafes, sports facilities and myriad other expensive alternatives to running about on the grass yelling your head off, to infiltrate our parks as ruthlessly and ineradicably as Japanese knotweed in the years to come.
It is my great hope – temporarily infused as I am with the optimistic spirit that accompanies an imminent new year – that Go Ape goes bust in Battersea and that it acts as a catalyst for so much more. That people will not be able to view two classes of children at play, segregated at the entrance by their parents’ incomes, with equanimity. Without seeing the macro in the micro; without seeing the shape of things to come; without considering the true cost at which the purchase – on our children, on our land, on our souls – is made.