Poorer children warned against playing in shared spaces in developing London | Access to green space

Children living in social housing in a multimillion-pound riverside development in London have been warned by their landlords not to play in shared spaces on the site.

Parents received letters from the City of London saying that children playing in the corridors had been recorded by a neighbor on a “noise nuisance app” and that the games were “a breach of leases”.

Families have claimed the children have nowhere else to play and Southwark council – which owns the land – said it was investigating whether the developer, Berkeley Homes, had not provided play space in the original planning permission.

One Tower Bridge is a large site of 399 residences with private condominiums and offers ‘five star living’. It was built by Berkeley on land owned by the council of Southwark, but the council housing units, which are in a separate block, are now managed by the City of London. There is no play area for children and families have been told the small roof garden is only “for quiet enjoyment”. Elsewhere on the development are communal gardens that tenants of social housing are not allowed to use.

Developments of this magnitude are routinely referred to the Mayor of London for review during the planning phase. At the time – 2010 – this was Boris Johnson, but he and his planning officials returned the final decision to Southwark after ruling that it appeared to meet planning guidelines for children’s play area. The report speaks of “235 square meters of play space on the site” and “a number of play opportunities in the rest of the open space on the site”.

When families asked where their children could play, City of London wrote back that they were not aware of “any obligation on the developer to provide play space”.

Sarah*, who lives on the complex, said children “played in the hallway because they had nowhere else to play”.

“I was very upset that someone recorded my nine-year-old playing and I found the letter [from City of London council] threatening. There was no attempt to consider our position,” she said.

Ella* has an 11-year-old. She said: “The hallway is wide and carpeted – we make sure they play quietly. They are not welcome anywhere else, they tried the lobby on the ground floor and were told to move on from there.

The Berkeley Homes development offers “five star living,” but social housing tenants are not allowed to use the community gardens. Photo: Graham Turner/The Guardian

“Certainly in a development of this size they could have a safe space for children to play. We know there are gardens we can’t use on the private side which was troubling during the lockdown.”

The site was the focus of an earlier controversy in 2015 when Berkeley asked Southwark council for permission to withdraw the agreed-upon access for social housing tenants to the gardens. While Southwark agreed to the change, they justified their decision by saying there would still be leeway available to social housing tenants.

In 2019, after the Guardian revealed that other developers were closing playgrounds and gardens to poorer residents, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the practice would not be allowed in new developments.

Commenting on the families’ complaints, a spokesperson for the City of London Corporation told the Guardian: “As a leaseholder … we are subject to the access and child play rules administered by the developer, Berkeley Homes, not the City Corporation.”

Berkeley Homes declined to answer questions put to them about the board’s comments and the broader game provision in the development.

After the Guardian contacted the City of London, they wrote again to residents saying it would be acceptable for children to play quietly in the hallways.

Sarah said this made her even more furious. “City of London has been threatening us for years, denying our children a safe space to play, effectively banning them from the roof garden. After the Guardian’s investigation, it’s actually insulting to turn around and say it’s okay for them to play quietly in the hallway. It’s not a privilege to play in a hallway. I never wanted my child to run down hallways.”

James McAsh, Southwark’s cabinet minister for the climate emergency and sustainable development, said the council was looking into whether Berkeley violated the original planning agreement:

“We want children of all backgrounds to have equal opportunities in life and the opportunity to play together. As a municipality, we owe it to residents to ensure that developers provide them with the affordable housing and amenities they have been promised.

“We are investigating what Berkeley Homes agreed to in the original, approved planning applications … and will enforce violations retroactively if necessary.”

Sarah said the lack of play space was exacerbated by wider restrictions on play in nearby streets.

“The riverside land where we live is privately owned, so there are no ball games, no children’s bicycles allowed, not even with stabilizers. In lockdown, with everything closed, we took them outside to play and immediately had guards hanging over us.”

All the parents the Guardian spoke to wanted to remain anonymous for fear of being labeled ungrateful for raising the issue.

Sarah said: “I work for the NHS, I pay rent here. When I accepted the offer to move here, I didn’t realize I was accepting punishment for being a second-class citizen. I just thought it was a great opportunity for me and my son. I consider myself very lucky to be housed here, but I am shocked by the way we are being spoken to.”

Play campaigners say they are seeing similar situations across the country, with an increase in neighbors complaining about children playing, often supported without a doubt by councils and landlords.

Alice Ferguson runs Playing Out, a Bristol based charity that supports street games in the UK.

She said: “Unfortunately, situations like this are not uncommon at all. We regularly hear from parents who have received ‘no play’ letters from their municipality or housing association.

“We have even seen letters threatening tenants with eviction if they continue to let their children play. We saw an increase in these complaints and ‘play bans’ during the pandemic.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “All children should have access to outdoor and green spaces to play in, and segregation of these spaces has no place in London. Our Play and Informal Recreation Policy in the London Plan requires new residential areas throughout London to provide at least 10 square meters of play and information recreation space per child. The mayor has no enforcement powers in this case and whether or not there is a violation is up to the local authority to determine – the mayor welcomes the ongoing investigation by the Southwark council.”

*Names changed

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