A West Leeds councillor has claimed it is “simply not possible” for the authority to safely reopen all of its local play areas due to government Covid-19 restrictions, writes Richard Beecham.
The claims come after the leader of the council’s opposition Conservatives group accused decision makers of “a failure of leadership” for their handling of reopening playgrounds in local parks.
Coun Andrew Carter (Con. Calverley & Farsley) claimed a plan coming forward on how to open playgrounds under the current government guidance, claiming decision-makers in the Labour-run authority were “hiding behind overly risk-averse advice”.
The council’s executive board member responsible Coun Mohammed Rafique (Lab) claimed the authority had already reopened seven playgrounds and was finalising plans to open “significantly more very soon”.
But he added the council has requested the government redraws its Covid safety guidance for play areas in large cities, warning it was “simply not possible” for the authority to safely open every play area in line with the current safety restrictions.
But Coun Carter claimed the number opened so far did not go far enough, and that a plan should have already been in place to ensure more could open safely.
“Sadly I feel Leeds City Council is being embarrassed by our constituent town and parish councils with regard to the re-opening of playgrounds.
“Under the same government guidance, they have managed to do what the city council has singularly avoided by hiding behind overly risk-averse advice.
“I believe it simply comes from a complete breakdown in political leadership from this administration. If the will were there, a way would have been found to make it happen.”
Play areas had originally been declared out of bounds back in the Spring due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
Original plans to reopen parks announced in mid-July had been delayed for a week following further government advice on public safety. The authority then confirmed it would begin reopening six of its play areas on July 23.
However, since then only one further play area has been reopened, meaning that out of 200 council-run play areas, only seven are able to be used.
Coun Carter stressed he did not want to suggest taking a “cavalier” attitude to public safety, but added the public “understand the situation much more than we give them credit for”.
He added: “Regrettably, I am now of the opinion there is no plan to get them open, only a plan to keep them closed. Our children have lost so much this year due to Covid, through not seeing friends while home schooling, now is the time they should be out in the park playing during the holidays and just being children.”
According to government guidance published last month, all owners of play areas and outdoor gyms need to carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment on each facility.
It added users should be able to safely observe one metre-plus social distancing rules and, if possible, introduce a maximum number of users, or even a booking system. Regular cleaning should also take place on equipment.
Coun Mohammed Rafique, the council’s executive member for environment and active lifestyles, claimed this was unrealistic for an area the size of Leeds to undertake.
“People will appreciate the need to be cautious when it comes to managing the risks of Covid-19. For playgrounds our primary focus has to be on the safety of children and families using them.
“However we understand that many families want to see playgrounds reopen safely which is why we have already reopened seven and we are finalising a detailed plan and risk assessment to open significantly more across the city very soon. In the meantime, we thank everyone for their patience and for following the guidance on safe use of public spaces.
He added the parish and district councils referred to by Coun Carter only managed a “very small” number of playgrounds, and it was therefore easier for them to meet government safety guidelines.
“There are around 2,000 pieces of play equipment in playgrounds under Leeds City Council’s responsibility,” he said. “This means it is simply not possible for us to keep them all safe to use in line with the government guidance.
“As a result, we have written to the government to demand they review the guidance for councils who manage a large number of playgrounds over a large geographic area like we do in Leeds.
“To date we have had no response from the government on this and I would remind Coun Carter that it is paramount that we all work together at this time of national crisis to keep the people of Leeds safe while doing everything we can to reopen facilities.”
Bramley Park playground re-opens
Bramley and Stanningley’s councillors have announced that the playground in Bramley Park will be open at the weekend. Posting on Facebook, councillors Caroline Gruen, Jools Heselwood and Kevin Ritchie said:
“Obviously hand sanitising and social distancing within bubbles should be adhered to and you may have to wait your turn, but the playground will be open this weekend. Bramley and stanningley councillors and Rachel Reeves MP have lobbied for the playground to be opened and we’re very pleased that it now is.”