Without public liability insurance, adventure playgrounds can't remain open. For many years, Zurich Insurance has been one of the few providers available, as other companies are unwilling to take the ‘risk' of offering insurance, despite accident rates for playgrounds being far lower than other activities for children - Rugby and Soccer for example have 100 times as many non-fatal accidents as public playgrounds. (Managing Risk in Play, 2012, Play England / National Children's Bureau).
In emails seen by The Times and the BBC, underwriters from Zurich gave notice that the company was re-evaluating its policies saying their "appetite has changed towards adventure playgrounds".
Writing to Glamis playground in Shadwell, East London, located only 10 minutes from Zurich's London headquarters, the insurers said: "Adventure playgrounds pose unique risks to an insurance company...the site looks very busy with a lot of non-standard play equipment." The insurer added that in general it was "seeing an ever-increasing claims culture and an increase in the cost of settling claims".
As anyone that supports creating spaces for children to play, whether in a municipal square, in a school, a park or a staffed adventure playground will know, there has been a concerted effort to move all design of spaces for children to play away from "standard play equipment" for the last two decades. This means the statement from Zurich suggests they have not been keeping up with recommended practice on playgrounds generally, let alone the guidance for design and build set out in the key documents held by Play England: Design for Play, Managing Risk in Play, or indeed the quality standards for adventurous play spaces as set out in Quality in Play. Play England also host a wealth of information about what makes Adventure Playgrounds special.
It turns out that none of the three playgrounds threatened by this change have reported making any claims against their insurance. Suzannah Walker, from Glamis, said she did not know of any insurance claims they had made in 15 years. Last year, their premium was £1,682 - a large sum for a cash strapped voluntary sector playground. "Our staff are risk-aware," she said. "Aware of the benefits of risk and also able to assess where a risk is unacceptable. Glamis is a breath of fresh air...without it our local population will be robbed of a vital and unique service."
Adventure Playgrounds are designed for older children who thrive on a bit of chaos and the opportunity to face danger. Frequently, they are located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, areas where there are few places that feel safe to play. Of course, they are designed to be risky, but as supervised spaces this risk does not equate to danger. Play England's publication People Make Play states: "Staffed play provision often takes place where children may have difficult and complex lives, and where the wider public realm is generally inhospitable to them. Providing a place to roam free, a safe haven in a hostile world, these sites have real value as places where children can be themselves, have unique and cherished experiences, bond with their peers and associate with older and younger children too."
At the World Economic Forum last week There was a whole session devoted to the importance of play and three major corporates - Lego, Ikea and Unilever - and Unicef launched a new report from their 'Real Play Coalition' on the Play Gap. The World Economic Forum has promoted this issue several times. So, it's not like this is a topic corporates are just not aware of.
Zurich Insurance at the same conference were handing out bobble hats with a message about the importance of Building Resilience. We, along with many voices from the play sector and beyond, will be asking them where they think children in our most deprived communities are supposed to build resilience if they don't support these playgrounds?
Play England and London Play have issued a joint statement setting out the key issues, including the results of surveying 33 adventure playgrounds. Of the 33 playgrounds that responded, 21 had never made a claim to their insurers and only four had made a claim of any sort in the last three years.
With more than 80 adventure playgrounds in London we are world leaders in providing this service to children growing up in cramped and unsafe conditions. In the year that London becomes a National Park City, to threaten these vital services seems extremely counter-intuitive. The Mayor, Sadiq Khan has written to Zurich and it is good to hear that Play England and London Play are meeting with them. This whole issue is based on perception of the risk assessors, not the reality of the situation or a discussion with the skilled risk-benefit assessors on the ground who know the real risks and their benefits for the children they serve.
Our team at Outdoor People know, from having worked on and with our local Hackney adventure playgrounds, what a vital community resource they are. They are special, magical places of joy: safe spaces for children to play. We need far more of them, not less.
Cath Prisk is chief executive of Outdoor People.