Update on company activities and achievements 2003/4

(Accompanied by volumes of gratuitous advice)


In the past year the company has delivered a number of important contracts for local authorities, companies, schools, colleges and voluntary organisations.

 Examples include:


1.      The bulk purchase inspection, risk assessment and access auditing of over fifty play areas and village halls in Cherwell district.

2.      Inspection, risk assessment and access auditing at five visitor centres and reservoir sites on behalf of Severn Trent Water plc.

3.      Sixty access audits and risk assessments in Warwick district.

4.      An access audit on Winstanley College.

5.      An access audit and risk assessment on Priestley College.

6.      Access audits were also undertaken in a variety of other contexts including swimming pools, crematoria, a women’s refuge, towpaths, sports pavilions and reading rooms

7.      Accidents in three locations were investigated and reported on.

8.      Two substantial development plans were scrutinised and reported on on behalf of clients.


Additionally we have acted as consultants to numbers of companies including the most important supplier of bark and wood chip suppliers in Britain. Melcourt.

 The regular series of annual inspections of playgrounds has now been completed in the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Northamptonshire. Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire and smaller contracts were undertaken in Surrey and Yorkshire.,

 As a part of the company’s commitment to the voluntary sector three audits and inspections were carried out on a Pro bono basis this year.

 Over the year numbers of post installation inspections and accident reports were carried out on playgrounds across the country.

 John Hicks was an individual member of the consultative group advising the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s and is listed in the subsequent ground breaking book Developing Accessible Play Space as an expert on safety and play related matters.

 Over the year seven seminars on aspects of planning and delivering services to people with disabilities have been staged in cities across the country including Belfast, Durham, Oxford and Cambridge,A further three seminars are now planned for Birmingham, Brighton and Leeds.

 John Hicks presented a paper, The DDA and Local Authority Recreation Services to the national conference, SALTEX, at Windsor.

 KOMPAN and the Record Play Company have called upon the company to contribute to their ‘roadshows’ and numbers of other companies have sought advice.

 Wicksteeds, in a most generous gesture acknowledged the fact that their excellent Guide to The Disability Discrimination Act quoted extensively from company publications.

 In association with Orston the company published three new books this year


  1. Guide to the Design and Management of Children’s Playspace John Hicks SBN 09535616 5 8.
  2.  Accessible and Inclusive Playspace  2nd edition 2004 John Hicks – ISBN 09535616 4  and
  3. The Playground Inspection and Maintenance Manual


The book that we published with RoSPA in 2001, Playgrounds for Children with Special Needs, has now gone out of print and so Accessible and Inclusive Playspace  has replaced it as the standard guide to these issues

 John Hicks has been invited to contribute a chapter to a new book Landsacpes of Childhood which will be published in Autumn 2005.

 Perhaps the most exciting event of the year was the undertaking and delivery of a major contract on behalf of the City of Plymouth.

The authority is to be congratulated on the degree to which it is purposefully addressing the issues arising from the full implementation of The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in October 2004. To this end they engaged the company to carry out full access audits on each of their 135 playgrounds and to make recommendations.

John Hicks personally undertook this contract which was completed in just over a month. A good result all round and an excellent example to the community as a whole! 

On an international basis the company maintains agreeable and mutually supportive relations with a number of individuals and organisations in the USA, Australia and States of Jersey and has maintained its advisory services there.

 Continuing research and publications are in hand in relation to the anticipated extensions and modifications in the DDA to come into effect in 2005

 A number of important issues exercised the minds of delegates in the seminar series and so I offer a note below on matters of general concern


The DDA, negligence and getting risk in perspective


When, on January 1st 1999, BSEN 1176 replaced the then existing British standard BS 5696 and the greater part of ts associated standard BS 7188 there was an over-reaction from providers resulting in the closure of many playgrounds. In fact the differences between the two standards justified no such reaction and there was no need to panic. The same might be said now in relation to the requirements of the DDA. There has admittedly been a lead in time to implementation of the DDA of almost nine years, but still the argument for precipitate action is not convincing.

 Three points need to be borne in mind:


  1. The probability is that many playgrounds and related areas are already sufficiently compliant to the Act to ensure that complaints alleging discrimination would be difficult to sustain. The degree to which the present exercise has thrown up results that are far from being generally critical offers evidence to support this view.


  1. Any externally imposed imperative for action would require a complaint to have been made and sustained through periods of mediation and the Disability Rights Commission’s conciliation procedures.


  1. The best case that can be made for establishing a long-term development plan for the delivery of accessible and inclusive play is contained in the recent publication Developing Accessible Play Space - The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) November 2003 3.

 In startling contrast to the compensation culture allegedly stalking the land it appears from a superficial reading of the literature currently fashionable in Britain to underplay the potentially lethal or crippling aspects of risk in relation to children’s play space and a single statement can be taken as being indicative of a growing mood:


exposure to real risk in playgrounds provides beneficial learning experience and a sought after thrill

If this were a single and perhaps perverse interpretation of children’s aspirations and needs then it might be dismissed as simply another mistaken minority view but weightier authorities make much the same point. The Play Safety Forum in a policy statement in 2002 claimed that

 “Children need and want to take risks where they play” Fortunately they temper this with the risible addition “play provision aims to manage the level of risk so that children are not exposed to unacceptable risks of death or serious injury”. 

The Deputy Prime Minister’s report sets up a man of straw in quoting a parent as saying that risk (to their disabled child) is preferable to exclusion from play. At a later point in the same report this is linked to “the pressure of the increasingly litigious climate in which we live”.

 Contrasting these views with those of the Townswomen’s Guild presented in earlier studies it is clear that for some part of the explanation of the degree to which some people underrate risk as an issue in play might be their life experience and occupations. Several studies of risk in employment demonstrate ‘attitude problems’ in relation to risk and safe practices and might be seen as having a bearing on this. In a study of measures to encourage the use of protective clothing, helmets, gloves and  boots in welding it was found that management saw the safety conscious and conforming operatives as being ‘half witted, slow but reliable people who gave very little trouble’  Other operatives did not necessarily share the ‘cissy’ judgement but said that that was how such people would be seen by many of their colleagues. Close parallels might be drawn between this situation and wheeled sports where, even within a macho environment, the best advice available recommends the use of protective clothing including helmets as well as gloves, knee and elbow guards

“People get injured on BMX tracks and it is essential that all site users are made aware of the dangers associated with wheeled sports. They need to wear a BS EN 1078 quality helmet, gloves, elbow, wrist and shin protectors and should at all times have their arms and legs covered to reduce the severity of the cuts, bruises and friction burns that inevitably go with the sport.”(

 The acceptance here of risk of injury is implicit and inevitable – it goes with the territory of wheeled sports generally and it is in the anticipation and mitigation of risk elements that service providers have a role.

 If this is not seen as being a contradiction in terms it might be claimed that the ability to take risks safely is a function of skill and experience rather than of early onset ‘rites of passage’, necessity, ignorance or taking opportunities for the display of bravado The skilled skater can achieve total weightlessness in spectacular exhibitions on full size half pipe ramps, ‘Verts’, at a height of 4 metres, but this is not a sport for novices, poseurs or the nervous and the ability to complete the move is invariably accompanied by the committed use of the required protective clothing.

 We can within this context distinguish between risk, the managed experience of risk and the appearance of risk.


·                    Risk is merely the chance or possibility of injury occurring, usually within identified and specific contexts. As such it is impossible to wholly exclude it and so the moderately unhelpful phrase ‘we tolerate risk’ is given some limited meaning.

·                    There are in place well documented and agreed risk assessment procedures to address the hazards with which risks are associated and so take measures to eliminate the hazard; substitute less hazardous parts or materials, engineer out the hazard or else introduce procedures which minimise risk.

·                    Within other contexts children, tense with fear, are guided up the ladder, or rocked while held on the see saw and so experience all of the terror of danger without suffering even a chance of the concomitant injuries apparently associated with the activity.


Similarly we can distinguish between making the play space safe and using the play space safely


·                    Making the place safe involves removal or otherwise countering specific known or presumed risks while

·                    using the place safely might require confidence in the skill of the rider or skateboarder to overcome whatever hazard is perceived.


An informed appreciation of risk is necessary for survival in all sentient creatures and is essential in some contexts but we don’t generally expose troops in training to live ammunition or train fire and rescue personnel in genuinely hazardous blazing buildings. So what can be the purpose of discussing other than at a simplistic level the requirement for real risk in children’s playgrounds?

 Most people wouldn’t tolerate any known and genuine risk of injury any more than they expect to find real ghosts in the ghost train but we might allow the appearance or pretence of danger to allow children to develop means of coping with improbable and perhaps later real life situations.

 From the first a well established safety policy should commit the supplier to providing a safe place and means of delivering play services and experience while invariably using their best endeavours to maintain safety and to encourage or require safe practices and behaviour. There is of course in playgrounds as elsewhere a dissonance between what is required and what actually is tolerated and occurs and so:


  1. We tolerate poorly designed and even dangerous play equipment. The simplest solution to this aspect of a greater problem lies in planned programmes of public education and the spreading of good practice through partnership with the informed and supportive attitudes of the play equipment industry leading the way.
  2. We allow economic considerations and mistaken social attitudes to influence the location of play equipment and play space. So the play area goes where the developer can’t build a house or the land is poor or at a considerable distance from the houses of people who don’t like the noise of children at play. “The road isn’t really dangerous”, some say, “It’s just that the cars go too fast.”
  3. We are reluctant or unable to insist that play equipment is adequately maintained throughout its life and to recognise when its usefulness is at an end. After all it all costs money and the rates are high enough already.
  4. We fail to recognise incorrect installation of equipment and so allow it to remain. Since in Britain we have had national standards on construction, installation and maintenance play equipment since 1959, it is difficult to explain this or any of the other points without recourse to words like ‘incompetent’ and ‘indifferent’
  5. Age separation in play and appropriate provision of age-related facilities tend to be low priorities in playground planning and management.
  6. Sometimes, but not as often as we defensively suggest, child misbehaviour or inappropriate use of apparatus contributes to accidents or exacerbates the outcomes. It is a pity that we have to discuss this issue in the context of the majority or serious injuries to children and especially fatalities occurring in domestic situations or on the roads.

 Statistically it is made clear in all relevant studies that playgrounds are comparatively speaking ‘safe’ places but the public perception is one of danger and the need for constant vigilance on the part of responsible authorities.  This is variously represented as the outcome or the cause of what is described by the ODPM as ‘an increasingly litigious society’


Confronting the risk of litigation

 There is reason to suppose that the fifty or so ‘hits’ achieved in any search engine when key words such as ‘play’ and ‘injury’ are fed into the computer demonstrates the presence of an active and enterprising legal profession but why is this a problem? Search for ‘car’, ‘pavement’ or ‘work’, again with ‘injury’, and the same firms appear and offer the same ‘No win – No fee’ services. This is the tone and tenor of the times and while deploring its worst ‘ambulance chasing’ attitudes what is the specific problem with its application in play? Are we to deny poor children compensation if they do suffer loss or pain or shall we campaign to ban cars along with play opportunities?  Equally important are we for whatever reasons, and perhaps some people merely fear the cost of their neglect, rejecting the reforming and innovative powers of the litigation process?

 Since Mc Donald’s paid out £350,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for scald injuries, coffee at 86c is dangerous, there is a growing interest in putting tops on hot drink containers so we all benefit from keeping the fluids hot for longer and, additionally, avoid scald injuries and so the need for litigation too.

 King and Ball make the startling claim that on a conservative reappraisal of the earlier Illingworth accident data they can identify more than 99 out of 200 accidents that could have been prevented ‘by a combination of design…layout …active supervision and teaching children better use of the equipment’.

 It appears certain that the introduction of British Standard (BS) 5696  in 1979 provided a considerable boost to safety through its clear and supportive references to unsafe surfaces, procedures and product design.

 In more recent times the passing of The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 left a lead in time of nine years before implementation and it appears perverse to complain of a litigious community spirit if some disadvantaged people complain that to date nothing has been done to meet the minimum terms of the Act.

 Whatever merit there is in the ‘litigious society’ claim generally some evidence of abuse of the system is provided in the manifesto issued in March 2004 by The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) which estimates that £117 millions are paid out annually in bogus or excessive compensation claims for injury and urges that ‘we should challenge the assumptions of some local authorities who take a safety first approach’

But this ‘evidence’ is flatly contradicted by The Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF), a government agency set up to monitor and scrutinise mattes of public concern In a report dated May 27th 2004 it shows that there were 60,000 fewer personal injury claims registered in 2003/04 than in the previous reporting period  “You don’t get money for nothing. It doesn’t happen in the way that television advertisements suggest: someone has to be negligent said Teresa Graham, who carried out the study and she also points out that more than half of the awards for damages made in county courts in 2002 were for sums less than £3,000. The cost of civil claims as a percentage of gross domestic product appears to have remained static at 0.6% and in the USA, the alleged role model it is similarly stable at about 2%.

It is perhaps in appreciation of these simple truths that four firms specialising in this area of work ceased trading over the period.2003/04 and within this context the ‘claims farmers’ might prove less resistant  to calls for regulation should the issue ever be seriously raised,


The way ahead is clear in Britain now.


·                    There is legislation in place that requires rather than encourages play providers to seek to address and cater for the needs of all clients and service users regardless of their abilities.

·                    There is encouragement and support for community action in play and leisure provision.

·                    There is money earmarked for specific areas of social and community based play needs and is conditional upon local consultation outcomes.

·                    There is a shift away from the ‘compensation culture’ that for a brief time seemed so pervasive and damaging.



 If you’ve read this far then you are probably in need of the company’s services- alternatively you are one of those scoundrels shamelessly using my material on their second rate ‘Access assessments’

 Whatever is the case you can contact me on the numbers given earlier.


John Hicks

September 2004