Jayne Dowle: New rules – give the streets over to our children

Give streets back to children, says Jayne Dowle.
Give streets back to children, says Jayne Dowle.
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I SOMETIMES wonder how the world managed to spin on its axis for millions of years without being encased in the protective shield of a hi-vis vest. I know this now-ubiquitous item can be a life-saver. I wouldn’t want to be mending a motorway without one. And, in emergency situations, that flash of bright orange or neon green marks out the police officer or paramedic.

On a residential street in the north of England on a quiet Easter Monday though? Is a hi-vis vest strictly necessary? Newcastle City Council certainly seems to think so. It’s launched Play Streets, a very worthwhile scheme to persuade children to come outside, run off their energy and tackle obesity.

Sir Bobby Charlton.

Sir Bobby Charlton.

The catch is that these youngsters can’t be trusted to kick a ball or play tig without a list of security requirements that make my children’s old primary school headteacher seem as lax over child health and safety as Waynetta Slob. This lady – the former, not the latter – was famous for not allowing her charges to proceed along the pavement to church without full protective regalia in place.

I am fully versed in the unpredictable ways of the under-10s. However, I’ll maintain now, as I did many times in conversation with the aforementioned headteacher, that children shouldn’t be wrapped up in cotton wool.

It’s all very well “allowing” them outside to enjoy the fresh air, but we can’t make outside a terrifying place. Otherwise the entire exercise is counter-productive. And represents a prime case of adult hypocrisy.

Staying indoors and chilling out with the Xbox looks like even more of an attractive proposition if the alternative involves being briefed and drilled like National Service recruits going on parade.

In Newcastle, the idea is to allow residents to close streets for up to three hours so children can play games without worrying about traffic. It’s a nice thought. After all, endless rounds of keepy-uppy in the back lane gave the nation formidable North East football talents such as Bobby Charlton, Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer.

There’s more than a hint of rose-tinted nostalgia about it all. I do like that. When I was a child growing up in 1970s Barnsley, a trip to the official play-park was a rare treat. Instead we roamed the cobbled streets (yes, I am that old) at will, ran madly through the allotments and if we were daring, climbed the cemetery wall and held picnics amongst the gravestones. Protected? Only by good luck and the siren call of our mothers beckoning us in for tea.

However, things have changed since the days of pig-bladder balls and hopscotch. In 2018, roads are more dangerous, cars are faster and motorists far less likely to slow down in residential areas. Around 5,000 children under the age of 16 die or are seriously injured on Britain’s roads each year, according to the AA motoring organisation. And nearly two in three road accidents happen when children are playing or walking.

No sensible adult would be careless about their child. But horrified parents in Newcastle say council zealots have scuppered this promising scheme by imposing impossible conditions.

Anyone wishing to hold a play session outside their own front door has to submit a six-page application form at least eight weeks in advance. All residents must be approached for their written agreement (some luck) and sessions must be supervised by adults wearing yes, those high-visibility vests.

And then, believe it or not, marshalls must be stationed at every entry point, with road signs and cones provided by the council put up at specified locations.

Organisers are also obliged to carry out a risk assessment in their own time (and presumably at their own expense) and are advised to obtain public liability insurance of at least £5m. Try explaining that particular challenge to your typical insurance broker. Oh, and every road closure must be advertised in the local press and on the street. And then local authorities tell us we must accept council tax increases, when they have the audacity to waste time drawing up stuff like this.

Defending the scheme, Arlene Ainsley, council cabinet member for transport, said: “Being able to play out in your street with your friends is a really important part of childhood but often mums and dads are understandably concerned about road safety. It’s not just about the children – adults can join in too.”

Well, that just says it all. The whole point of children playing outside is for them to find their freedom and establish their own rules. Unless they are wobbly toddlers, the last thing any child should want is mum or dad hanging around when they’re catching frogs and putting them in ants’ nests (this did actually happen one memorable summer’s afternoon in the allotments, names withheld).

If your children are racing round the house this Easter driving you to distraction, I have only one thing to say. Open the front door and let them run free. And leave the hi-vis vest, the traffic cones and the red tape where it belongs. Locked in a cupboard in the council offices marked for emergency use only.