Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Harriet Grant

Social housing tenants warned of ‘play ban’ for children in London site’s shared spaces

One Tower Bridge
Social housing tenants say there is limited play space in the Southwark development, where private flats sell for millions. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Children living in social housing flats in a multimillion-pound riverside development in London have been warned off playing in shared spaces on the site by their landlords.

Parents received letters from City of London council telling them that children playing in the corridors had been recorded on a “noise nuisance app” by a neighbour, and that the games were “a breach of tenancy agreements”.

Families have argued there is nowhere else for the children to play and Southwark council – which owns the land – said it was investigating whether the developer, Berkeley Homes, failed to provide play space promised in the original planning permission.

One Tower Bridge is a large site of 399 homes with private flats offering “five star living”. It was built by Berkeley on land owned by Southwark council but the social housing flats, which are in a separate block, are now managed by the City of London. There is no allocated play space for children and families have been told that the small rooftop garden is “for quiet enjoyment” only. There are communal gardens elsewhere on the development which social housing tenants are not allowed to use.

Developments of this size are routinely referred to the mayor of London for assessment during the planning phase. At the time – 2010 – this was Boris Johnson, but he and his planning officials passed the final decision back to Southwark after ruling that it appeared to meet planning guidelines on children’s play space. The report refers to “235 sq metres of designated play space on site” as well as “a number of play opportunities in the remainder of the open space on-site”.

When families asked where their children could play City of London wrote back that they were not aware of “any obligation for the developer to provide play space”.

Sarah*, who lives on the development, said children “were playing in the corridor because there is nowhere else for them to play”.

“I was very upset that someone recorded my nine-year-old while he played and I found the letter [from City of London council] threatening. There was no attempt to consider our point of view,” she said.

Ella* has an 11-year-old. She said: “The corridor is wide and carpeted – we make sure they play quietly. They are not welcome anywhere else, they have tried the ground-floor lobby and have been told to move on from there.

“Surely in a development this size they could have a safe space for children to play, we know there are gardens we can’t use on the private side which was upsetting in lockdown.”

One Tower Bridge, view of flats’ balconies
The Berkeley Homes development offers ‘five star living’, but social housing tenants are barred from using the communal gardens. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

The site was the centre of a previous controversy in 2015 when Berkeley applied to Southwark council for permission to revoke agreed access for social housing tenants to the gardens. Although Southwark agreed to the change, they justified their decision by saying there would still be play space available for social housing tenants.

In 2019, after the Guardian revealed that other developers were closing off play areas and gardens to poorer residents the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the practice would not be allowed in new developments.

In a response to the families’ complaints, a City of London Corporation spokesperson told the Guardian: “As leaseholder … we are subject to the rules on access and children’s play which are managed by the developer, Berkeley Homes, not the City Corporation.”

Berkeley Homes declined to answer questions put to them about the council’s comments and wider play provision in the development.

After the Guardian contacted City of London, they wrote again to residents saying that it might be acceptable for children to play quietly in corridors.

Sarah said this infuriated her further. “City of London has threatened us for years and denied our children a safe space to play, effectively banning them from the roof garden. Following the inquiry from the Guardian, to turn around and say it’s OK for them to play quietly in the corridor is actually insulting. It is not a privilege to play in a corridor. I never wanted my child to run around corridors.”

James McAsh, Southwark’s Cabinet Member for the Climate Emergency and Sustainable Development, said the council was looking at whether Berkeley was in breach of the original planning agreement: “We want children of all backgrounds to have equal opportunities in life and the chance to play together. As a council we owe it to residents to make sure that developers give them the affordable housing and amenities they were promised.

“We are looking into what Berkeley Homes agreed to provide in the original, consented planning applications … and will enforce violations retroactively if required.”

Sarah said the lack of play space was compounded by wider restrictions on play in nearby streets.

“The land on the riverside that we live on is privately owned so there are no ballgames, no kids’ bikes allowed, even with stabilisers. In lockdown, with everything closed, we took them out to play and immediately had security guards hovering over us.”

All the parents the Guardian spoke to wanted to remain anonymous for fear of being labelled 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 realise I was accepting a sentence of being a second-class citizen. I just thought it was a beautiful opportunity for me and my son. I do consider myself very fortunate to have been housed here but I have been shocked at how we are spoken to.”

Play campaigners say they are seeing similar situations across the country, with lockdowns driving a rise in neighbours complaining about children playing, which are often backed without question by councils and landlords.

Alice Ferguson runs Playing Out, a Bristol-based charity that supports street play across the UK.

She said: “Sadly, this type of situation is not at all unusual. We hear regularly from parents who have been sent ‘play ban’ letters by their council or housing association.

“We have even seen letters threatening tenants with eviction if they continue to let their children play out. We saw 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 space to play in, and segregation of these spaces has no place in London. Our play and informal recreation policy in the London plan requires new residential developments across London to provide at least 10 sq metres of play and information recreation space per child. The mayor has no enforcement powers in this instance and whether or not there is a breach is for the local authority to determine – the mayor welcomes the ongoing investigation by Southwark council.”

*Names changed

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.