Opinion: Newtown Adventure Playground – Saving The Venny

By Manthan Pathak.

In my mind’s eye it was a vast space, an epic playground that would take forever to run from end to end. I’m talking about Newtown Adventure Playground (The Venny), where as a small boy I’d spend hours on the swing or clambering up the playhouse. Now, with grown up eyes, I can barely recognise this unremarkable tiny green area, even if the swing and the playhouse remain.

The Venny remains open for now, but the council are proposing to implement a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order) that will effectively force its closure for a minimum of three years. It’s the only green space in Newtown, and as such, a vital asset the community can’t afford to lose. In an area that has been neglected, where youth facilities have closed, its loss would be devastating for its residents.

It’s not a coincidence that Bevois ward (which includes Newtown) has the highest rate of criminal damage offences in the city, according to the latest Safe City Report. It tells us that when an area is unloved, crime surely follows. It is in these unloved spaces that crime becomes permissible, amid a landscape already blighted, in an area uncared for.

That narrative has to change: the residents of Newtown deserve a new story. Studies show that green space not only has a positive effect on mental health, but also improves community cohesion and encourages social interaction. In other words, the essential conditions for a community to flourish.

For the children in the area, closing the Venny would rob them of the only place they can meet other children in the neighbourhood and play. That’s such a simple joy that I was able to enjoy and one that all children should enjoy too. It’s surely a vital measure of how well a city treats its citizens that a space of communal play is provided; the absence of that space a damning indictment of how little the local authority cares.

None of this is to deny that anti-social behaviour in Newtown is a problem that needs to be addressed, but imposing a PSPO is a plaster for a gaping wound, displacing criminal behaviour elsewhere in the area, while simultaneously removing its only playground. Studies show that one of the strongest predictors for crime is the absence of green space. The PSPO, then, effectively represents a triple mistake by the council.

Instead what’s needed is a longer-term view to be taken, not a short-term fix. Best practice elsewhere tells us that tackling the root of the problem involves establishing a multi-agency group that identifies the physical, psychological and social reasons that cause anti-social behaviour among individuals in the area. From there they can make appropriate and effective interventions. This can only be achieved if drug and alcohol services work with health services, social services and the police in a joined-up approach that will require time and patience.

There are hopeful stories in other places if we look. In Croydon, a community kitchen was created as part of a counterproposal to a PSPO, alongside a multi-agency approach to reduce anti-social behaviour. In area similarly beset by alcohol dependency, the work of the South Norwood Community Kitchen is underpinned by an understanding that the provision of a meal is a protective barrier to the cognitive damage caused by alcohol addiction, while also offering users an alcohol-free space where those willing can engage with services to help them recover.

A campaign by local residents to prevent the Venny being closed demonstrates the strength of feeling in the community against the proposed PSPO. Sarah Imran from the campaign says: “The Venny has been the centre of our community for decades. This used to be my safe place as a child. We were able to explore, play and learn. It was like my second home. We loved it there and many who live here would agree. The Venny was once an open access play provision which allowed children to interact and be children in a safe environment.

“I believe that taking away this park will leave children with nowhere to go. There is nothing left here now for our children. If this is taken away, where do they go? Please help us to stop our children’s futures being ruined further.

“Since the play and youth services were taken away by the council due to so-called budget cuts our youth have suffered tremendously with mental health issues, alcoholism, drugs and gang violence. This is worrying and on the increase. Surely this should be taken seriously. There are play and youth provisions all over the city but not in Newtown. Do our children not matter? Do our voices not count? We would like the council to invest back in our area, in our children and give back what has been so wrongfully taken away from us”.

An online public consultation took place earlier this year but it’s certain that an in-person community consultation would have greater engagement. That can still happen, and should.

Much will rest on the discussion of the consultation report at the council cabinet meeting, likely on June 18th. There is a tremendous opportunity to invest in a neglected community instead of depriving it further, to work with the community rather than against it. The case for a progressive plan for Newtown feels undeniable.


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