Children living in council housing flats in a multi-million pound waterfront development in London have been warned not to play in spaces shared on site by their landlords.
Parents received letters from London City Council telling them that children playing in the hallways had been recorded on a ‘noise nuisance app’ by a neighbor and that the games were ‘a breach of tenancy agreements’.
The families argued there was nowhere else for the children to play and Southwark Council – which owns the land – said it was investigating whether developer Berkeley Homes had failed to provide the play space promised in the initial building permit.
One Tower Bridge is a sprawling site of 399 houses with private apartments offering ‘five star living’. It was built by Berkeley on land owned by Southwark Council, but the social housing, which is in a separate block, is now managed by the City of London. There is no play space for children and families have been advised that the small roof garden is ‘for quiet enjoyment’ only. There are communal gardens elsewhere on the housing estate which social housing tenants are not permitted to use.
Developments of this size are routinely referred to the Mayor of London for assessment during the planning phase. At the time – 2010 – it was Boris Johnson, but he and his planning officials referred the final decision to Southwark after judging that he appeared to meet planning guidelines on the children’s play space. The report refers to “235 square meters of designated play space on the site” as well as “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 replied that they were not aware of any “obligation for the developer to provide play space”.
Sarah*, who lives on the housing estate, said the children were ‘playing in the hallway because there was 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 take our point of view into account,” she said.
Ella* has an 11-year-old child. She said: “The hallway is wide and carpeted – we make sure they play quietly. They are not welcome anywhere else, they tried the downstairs lobby and were told to go from there.
“In a development of this size they could surely have a safe space for the children to play, we know there are gardens that we cannot use on the private side which was upsetting during the lockdown.”
The site was at the center of a previous controversy in 2015 when Berkeley asked Southwark Council for permission to revoke council housing tenants’ agreed access to the gardens. Although Southwark accepted the change, they justified their decision by saying that there would still be play space available for social housing tenants.
In 2019, after the Guardian revealed that other developers were closing play areas and gardens to poorer residents, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the practice would not be allowed in new developments.
In response to complaints from families, a spokesperson for the City of London Corporation told the Guardian: “As a leaseholder…we are subject to the access and children’s play rules which are managed by the developer, Berkeley Homes, not by the City Corporation.
Berkeley Homes declined to answer questions posed to them about the council’s comments and the broader play offering in the development.
After The Guardian contacted the City of London, they again wrote to residents saying it might be okay for children to play quietly in the hallways.
Sarah said that made her even angrier. “The City of London threatened us for years and denied our children a safe space to play, effectively denying them access to the roof garden. Following the Guardian’s investigation, to turn around and say it’s OK for them to play quietly in the hallway is actually insulting. It’s not a privilege to play in a hallway. I never wanted my child to run down the halls.
James McAsh, Southwark cabinet member for climate emergency and sustainability, said the council was looking into whether Berkeley was breaching the original planning agreement: “We want children from all walks of life to have equal opportunities in life. life and the chance to play together. . As a council, we owe it to residents to ensure developers deliver the affordable homes and amenities they have been promised.
“We are reviewing what Berkeley Homes agreed to provide in original and consented planning applications…and will apply violations retroactively if necessary.”
Sarah said the lack of play space was compounded by wider restrictions on play on nearby streets.
“The riverside land we live on is privately owned, so there are no ball games, no children’s bikes allowed, even with stabilizers. Locked out, with everything closed, we took them out to play and immediately had security guards watching us.
All of the parents The Guardian spoke to wished to remain anonymous for fear of being called 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 know that I was accepting a second-class citizen sentence. I just thought it was a great opportunity for me and my son. I consider myself really lucky to have been accommodated here, but I was shocked by the way we were spoken to.
Gambling activists say they see similar situations across the country, with closures leading to an increase in neighbors complaining about child gambling, which is often backed no doubt by councils and landlords.
Alice Ferguson runs Playing Out, a Bristol-based charity which supports street play across the UK.
She said: “Unfortunately, this type of situation is not at all unusual. We regularly hear from parents who have received no play letters from their council or housing association.
“We have even seen letters threatening tenants with eviction if they continue to let their children play. We have seen 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 in which to play, and the segregation of such spaces has no place in London. Our Informal Play and Leisure Policy in the London Plan requires new residential developments across London to provide at least 10 square meters of informational play and leisure space per child. The mayor has no enforcement powers in this case and it is up to the local authority to determine whether or not there is an infringement – the mayor welcomes the ongoing investigation by Southwark Council.