Protesters battle to save Battersea Park playground


Occupy London and members of Wandsworth Against Cuts have been camping in the playground since last Saturday afternoon.


By Ellie Ross

Protesters are continuing their occupation of Battersea Park Adventure Playground for a tenth day, despite the onset of freezing temperatures.

Occupy London and members of Wandsworth Against Cuts (WAC) have been camping in the playground since last Saturday afternoon in a bid to save it from demolition.

They are claiming squatters’ rights, forcing the council to seek a legal injunction to remove the occupiers and begin work.

The Tory-run council plans to install equipment for younger children that does not require supervision and which parents say is less challenging.

Education and Children’s Servicers Councillor Kathy Tracey has slammed the protestors for slowing down the process.

She told SW Londoner: “They’ve made their point and they should now go because all they are doing is delaying the playground from reopening at Easter.”

But Occupy London say that the majority do not want the changes – in a 2011 Wandsworth Council survey, 86.6% voted against the plans to remove staff and bulldoze the playground.

Ronan McNern from Occupy London said: “It’s very clear they haven’t listened to the public who overwhelmingly said no to the plans.”

The council is set to plough £200,000 into replacing the 40-year-old wooden structures with those that meet the strict 21st century health and safety standards.

But opposition fear that the changes will remove the “adventure” aspect and make it into a run-of-the-mill playground, putting children – and especially teenagers – off.

Emma Umpleby, 21, a nanny living opposite the park, says the two girls she looks after, aged eight and two, are disappointed.

She said: “Kids are bored of swings and slides. They need something with a challenge and team building.

This will be just another boring playground that we don’t want.”

The council closed the adventure playground last October, despite local resistance, after it axed its last four members of staff.

They now propose to save on costs by keeping the playground unstaffed – but this has been met with fierce opposition.

Single mother-of-one Sandra Munoz-Alvarez, 38, fears that removing the staff will make the playground less safe.

“The staff are first-aid trained in case anybody falls and hurts themselves,” she said.

“But they also supervise the playground and keep the order, preventing fights and gangs.

“Who is going to monitor that if there is no staff?”

Ms Munoz-Alvarez, speaking on behalf of Women of Wandsworth Mums, said that she wants a full U-turn to bring back staff.

Lydia Smith-Aouane worked as a play worker at the adventure playground from 2001-2011, resigning when the changes were first announced and she feared for her job security.

The 35-year-old single mother-of-two, who now works as a nanny, believes it’s the youngsters from Wandsworth council estates who are losing out the most.

She said: “I’m disgusted with what they’re doing to disadvantaged young people.

“The council wants to knock it down because they hate poor people.”

She said about the staff who have lost their jobs: “They are devastated. It’s sad because they are all skilled and good at their jobs.

“I know one who will struggle to find a new job because she’s older.”

She added that the playground was a kind of youth club with staff acting as mentors for troubled teens.

“This idea won’t save money in the long run, because more teenagers will turn to crime,” she said.

“More money will have to be spent on anti-social behaviour in the future.”

Cllr Tracey, who claims that 68% of the playground’s users are under-tens, says counselling was never the role of the playground workers.

She said: “The workers at the playground were never intended to be mentors to youngsters that are going off the rails.

“There are better qualified youth workers in the borough to deal with that.”

The stand-off between the council and protesters has led to the closure of the nearby children’s playground – with the council claiming that the protesters have infringer health and safety grounds.

Jane Eades, from Wandsworth Against Cuts, slammed the move, labelling it a political ploy.

She said: “This is a cynical move to try and make the occupation unpopular with parents.

“You might think that in a middle class area like Battersea Park people would support the council’s decisions to cut council tax but the vast majority tells us that they can’t see any economic or social sense to it.

“The council isn’t going to come out of this looking too popular.”

Cllr Tracey said: “It’s not our fault the last Labour government overspent to such an extent that we now all have to pay the cost for it.

“We have to make savings, we can’t not do it.”

Sue Baxter, 63, worked as a playground worker from 1972-5 and believes the council’s decision is short-sighted.

She said: “This is just another example of resources being taken away with nothing being put in its place.

“These young people are not going to go away, they are still in the area and will want an outlet for their energy.”

Cllr Tracey said: “I think it’s a very imaginative solution to make sure we can keep an adventure playground in today’ climate in Battersea Park.

“We can’t afford to have staff that are there just because the equipment isn’t up to the 21st century regulations.

 “I don’t understand why people are so angry.”

Picture courtesy of Matthew Varnham, with thanks.

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