Thursday, 29 October 2009

Watford playgrounds fiasco - an update

Watford's decision to ban parents from (in the mayor's words) "hanging around" two adventure playgrounds has provoked bemusement and anger in equal measure, with some speculating about the political damage the story may do to the Lib Dem's chances of winning the seat at the next general election. Belatedly, the council has tried to undo some of the damage caused, not just by the reports, but by their patently absurd and offensive justification of it. They are now claiming that the two parks "are closed, fully supervised facilities" indistinguishable from schools.

However, by Lib Dem Mayor Dorothy Thornhill's own admission a practice had arisen whereby some parents stayed to share the experience with their children. Neither Thornhill nor the Council have explained why this is dangerous, inconvenient or otherwise objectionable. While some have blamed press exaggeration for the controversy, it was the complaints of parents upset at being turned away that prompted the Watford Observer's original story.

Dorothy has written a new post (with slightly fewer exclamation marks than her original, deleted thoughts) in which she hopes "to reassure residents that I’ve not taken leave of my senses". She repeats the new line that only two playgrounds are affected, and says that the new rule was brought in after "a number of incidents". There's no hint as to the nature of these "incidents", but it would seem that at most some members of staff found the presence of parents at the facility distracting. She writes:


I’m not saying adults shouldn’t be allowed on playgrounds – I’d go out and shoot myself if this was the case – only on these specialised play facilities!


But that is precisely what she said! Her words, as widely quoted, were, "Sadly, in the present climate, you can't have adults walking around unchecked in a children's playground". Will she be shooting herself? I doubt it.

The council for its part seems to have dropped its original justification that the ruling was needed to comply with Ofsted guidelines, and Thornhill makes no mention of paedophiles or any threat of abduction in her new post. She also says, bizarrely,

What I have taken from this is the importance of the accuracy of language and the power of the web - none of these news stories would have appeared if we didn’t refer to our adventure play sessions as adventure playgrounds.


This was never about the language used to describe facilities (though, since they are permanent structures, the term "adventure playground" is clearly the more accurate). It was about parents being led to believe that they were not trusted around their own children - and, when the story broke, about the mayor's scaremongering about paedophiles and abduction to justify the ban.

It is important to be clear about this point. Despite attempts to suggest otherwise, this is not a story about the Daily Mail (which merely regurgitated the Watford Observer's report) or Henry Porter, or bloggers, misrepresenting a reasonable decision as "political correctness gone mad". The local newspaper gave the council, and the mayor, every opportunity to respond to the complaints of parents who found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly banned from their children's playground. They did so, and their comments were fully and accurately reported.

The council cited Ofsted guidelines and child protection issues as justification for the ban, and this is what kicked off the media storm. If today's explanation is the correct one, their previous explanation was (deliberately or otherwise) false. At the very least it was inaccurate and misleading, and suggested a woeful misunderstanding of Ofsted guidelines. As for the mayor, her overwrought, alarmist and offensive blogpost yesterday ought to raise serious questions about her suitability for the office she holds. Today she Twittered that she had spent the morning "putting the record straight". Attempting to extract her foot from her mouth, in other words.

People who wish to use this story as ammunition to bash the Daily Mail or Henry Porter are way off the mark. It's not what the mayor and council are saying now that matters. It's what they said in the first place.