What price David Cameron’s Big Society? Tory-run Wandsworth Council is for the first time to charge weekend visitors to the Battersea Park Adventure Playground, that vast childhood paradise of wooden walkways and clatter bridges, swings, ropes, ladders and excitement that has been the salvation of many a south London parent on an everlasting ‘I’m bored’ Sunday afternoon. And that, it seems, is the problem.
For while some might consider the £2.50 charge particularly mean and penny-pinching – as easy a scam as nicking Smarties off a toddler –the council says not. It reckons a survey found that half the children using the playground came from neighbouring boroughs (yes, this Southwark-based Londonist parent can plead guilty) and asks:
“Why should Wandsworth taxpayers subsidise children from other boroughs?”
Admittedly, Wandsworth has £55m worth of budget cuts to make this year, and it’s not as if the playground users will be old enough to vote come the next election. But, as Labour politicians have pointed out, the move appears ‘unbelievably mean-spirited’ and will, in effect, disenfranchise the poorest families, already the hardest hit by government and council cuts.
Wandsworth Council argues that the park is ‘about more than swings and roundabouts’ and that its zip wires and 40ft structures mean that extra health and safety staffing costs need to be recouped in ‘difficult economic times’.
But local mother-of-three Senia Dedic, who used the playground when she lived in an eighth-floor flat with no access to a garden, says:
“For families struggling on benefits, it’s going to cost a lot of money so the people who need this playground the most cannot afford to pay. The park desperately needs refurbishing so it’s a bit rich of Wandsworth council to make people pay.
“All around is a real pocket of deprivation where people don’t have gardens so this is a real haven.”
Within 24 hours of the announcement, 400 people had signed an e-petition on the council website opposing the new charges.
The leader of Wandsworth Council earns more than £240,000 a year.