Structural imbalance: Public good and the play equipment industry

Public good, industry, and providing for play

A ‘structural imbalance’  has been allowed to develop such that what constitutes public benefit in respect of  children and teenagers’ play has been distorted by an overly influential play equipment industry.   This article discusses industry, understood as commercial enterprise, and where decision-making about public benefit should be located.  It is argued that, currently and for too long, public benefit decisions about play provision have been dislodged from their proper location – for example, publicly accountable bodies- to be captured by sectional interests.  It is further argued that little blame attaches to industry, but that play provision providers have not fulfilled their responsibilities.

Introduction

I want in this article to take an initial look at how the ‘public good’ or ‘public benefit’ comes to be constituted, and how this relates, or should relate, to industry, understood as commercial enterprise.  My particular focus is the play equipment industry and its relationship to the determination, and upholding, of the public good.   This article will be fairly broad-brush, aiming to put this issue into play, rather than attempting a comprehensive account of what is a complex, nuanced area that traverses political, economic and social boundaries.

Public benefit

I’ll take it as axiomatic that there are a number of ‘public goods’ that have in principle broad acceptance.  In the UK,  one fairly strong contender for a public good with widespread acceptance is the National Health Service.  Other in principle, broadly uncontroversial examples of public goods would include, for example,  the provision of energy to a country’s population,  a more or less efficient transport system, the promotion and securing of public health; and the provision of play opportunities for children and teenagers.   There will of course be divergent views about how those public goods might be provided, but not that they should be provided.  Arriving at a decision about how those goods will be provided will more often than not be a matter of hot contention.  There is, however, in addition to the first how question, a second how question to be asked, plus a who question: how are decisions about what constitutes a public good to be reached,  and who is ultimately to decide?

Before turning to the latter two questions,  a few words about industry, understood as commercial enterprise.

 Industry, understood as commercial enterprise

Industry’s mode of operation in a market economy is  to meet, but also to create, demand.  And as a corollary to that, a rational, economically savvy industry will seek to bend demand to the type of product it currently produces.

It is worth adding here that whilst a market economy, understood as a system,  requires that there be a market place within which different firms compete –  and there is a well-argued case that designates this form of economic structure a public good – that is not  the same as saying that individual firms are desirous of effective competition.  There is a strong case to suggest that the interests of any individual firm, or cluster of firms, is to become a monopoly supplier of goods and services, if possible.   Hence cartels, mergers and acquisitions, and so forth.  This is countered,  at particular historical moments, in some countries at least,  by legislation designed to curb these monopolistic tendencies which are seen as injurious to the wider public good.

Arguably, industry trade bodies  are ‘soft’ attempts at creating quasi- or semi-monopolistic groupings, this time advancing the interests of clusters of firms within a particular market segment.   In principle, this is all perfectly legitimate and reasonable.

The point to be made, however, is that nothing said about the nature of industry leads to the conclusion that they are best placed to determine what constitutes the wider public good.  This is not to deny that many firms have useful contributions to make to deliberations  about what that good might look like.   But industry is concerned with its own good (nothing wrong with that), and to that extent,  will seek to be persuasive in its own cause when ideas about the public good are being formulated.  In this, industry will quite naturally tend to favour the public good being correlated with what it is already producing, or what it is capable of developing.   Thus, as indicated at this paragraph’s head, industry aims to meet demand, but also aims to create it.

Structural imbalance

My concern is that there is now, and there has been for some time, a structural imbalance in the relationship between one industry – the play equipment industry – and the determination of the public good, in so far as it relates to play provision.  In other words, decisions about how play is provided for, and who  determines how it is provided, has been dislodged from, for example,  publicly accountable bodies, to reside, by default, within an industry.   I have previously discussed the way industry play provision standards, and the accompanying play provision inspectors, have trespassed on territory not properly theirs[1].  But now I want to look more widely at why the current dispensation is wrong  and harmful; and also speculate a little about how the current position has been reached.

Public goods

If we look at the ‘public goods’  mentioned earlier – the provision of energy to a country’s population;  creating a more or less efficient transport system; promoting public health – it is uncontroversial to note that various industries have an interest in shaping both what those goals should be, and how they will be met.  There is nothing in principle wrong with that.  But there are clear limitations – or at least there should be – as to the degree to which any industry should in effect control, or have undue influence, on the determination of what constitutes a public good,  and how it might be achieved.

I’d be surprised if readers of this piece would take issue with the proposition that it is not for the nuclear power industry, nor the alternative energy industry, to determine what national energy policy – the notional public good – should be, irrespective of our particular, individual preferences.  By the same token, it is not for the airline or train or car industry to determine transport policy. So far as public health is concerned, my guess is that readers will share with me the view that public health decisions should not reside with the pharmaceutical industry, nor indeed with homeopaths, acupuncturists or Vedic healers .  They all have a right to a voice, but not to determine or control policy.

Turning now to the provision of play opportunities, thought of as a public good, it does appear that the play equipment industry  has put itself in the position of determining to a significant extent what constitutes the public good so far as play is concerned.  Whether this has occurred by virtue of industry planning this outcome, or whether it has occurred by inadvertence or happenstance, it has happened.  I have a suspicion that it is, in part at least, an unintended, un-anticipated outcome, one that has nevertheless proved highly functional for the play equipment industry and play provision inspectors.   I’ll discuss below a set of potential, partial explanations of how this might have come about.  But first, a brief outline of the means by which the ‘structural imbalance’ is constructed, maintained, and systematised.

Mother ship and fleet

The main industry vehicle – the mother ship – deployed to dominate ideas about what constitutes the public good so far as play is concerned, is the EU play equipment standard (there are parallels in other jurisdictions).  In the UK, the standards are not mandatory.  This is quite widely known, and oft repeated, but this knowledge amounts to no more than a repetitious litany devoid of any practical meaning.  In practice standards are treated as though they are law.  Accompanying the mother ship of standards there is a supporting fleet of inspectors and organisations, not necessarily play organisations, generating sets of ‘advice’ and ‘information’ sheets, most if not all stressing that standards, though not mandatory, are better adhered to both because they aid safety, and/or on ‘better safe than sorry’ grounds in case the play provision provider ends up in court.  In terms of the vocabulary deployed, both mother ship and accompanying support fleet effectively appropriate the terms ‘safe’ and ‘safety’ by making the seemingly unassailable assertion that standards and safety are two sides of the same coin.  They are not.

Now, in practical terms, the only, or at least main, place to go to get standard compliant equipment is the play equipment industry.  Its trade body, the API, has as a condition of membership that,  ‘All products/services must conform to the appropriate British or European Standards’.    And since the position promoted is that providers really, really should adhere to standards, the industry has in effect written its own rule book, and created a captive market for itself[2].  As a further step in corralling places to play into an industry template, the EN Standard extends its scope to, ‘…equipment and units installed as children’s playground equipment although not manufactured as such’.   You may wish to pause to read that last sentence again.  It is breathtaking in its implications.   The self-appointed, industry-dominated Standards body has determined that even the stuff that it does not make, or perhaps is not ‘made’ (in the sense of manufactured) at all, falls within the scope of its self-generated standard.  Beware, play provision provider, of  the errant boulder and  the renegade tree that fails the standard’s stipulations[3].   What is being attempted here is akin to electric hair curler manufacturers insisting that all non-electrical hair brushing implements sold must comply with electric hair curler standards.  The logical consequence of which, is a hairbrush with a fuse and sealed plug.

It must by now be seen that, taken as a whole, all this has perverse effects.  As demonstrated in an earlier article, those attempting to create ‘natural’ play environments too often find themselves having to shoehorn their provision into a standards’ template, thus effectively undermining  their own policy  objectives.   But the point I make here is generic, it is not reliant on a commitment to the virtues of, for example,  ‘natural’ play environments.

Who’s responsible?

My own view is that it is primarily play provision providers who have responsibility here.  To a significant extent they have simply succumbed to the standard’s orthodoxy, and been timorous where they should have been robust in asserting  their role as the determiners of what constitutes public benefit and, in that role, fulfilling their responsibility to come to an independent, value-based  view about what constitutes good play opportunities, and what constitutes an ‘acceptable level of risk’ in any particular case.  Instead, they have in effect acted as the unpaid militia guarding the play industry’s borders.   Play provision providers – particularly those that are publicly accountable – have ceded authority to an industry, allowing it to usurp the role that is properly theirs.  That these same authorities, at the same time, profess  support for the principles and practices recommended in, for example, Design for Playa guide to creating successful play spaces and Managing Risk in Play Provision: implementation guide  amount to no more than nods and gestures, whereby the ends are desired, but the means disallowed.

I am therefore disinclined to blame industry, or its trade body,  for promoting its wares  and seeking to create and maintain a quasi-monopolistic  position. Industry is as industry does.  No, the fault has to be laid at the door of publicly accountable bodies in particular. And the ‘play world’ also shares some responsibility for allowing the position to remain as it is.

What it is that is being discussed here?

Now, you may disagree with every single word I’ve said about standards, mother ship, fleet and all.  You may take the view that standards are quite the best thing that has happened, and that we need more, not fewer, of them.  But that is not what is at issue here.  What is at issue is a matter of principle, and how infringement of that principle has  undermined the pursuit of public benefit.

The principle infringed is that decisions about what constitutes public benefit  is a matter for, in broad terms, publicly accountable bodies, and not to be trapped within fiefdoms of special interests. What is at issue here is that a narrowly focused, play equipment industry, with its own  (perfectly legitimate) self-interested view has been allowed  to colonise and control decisions about what constitutes the public good so far as play is concerned.  If the position in this sector were replicated in the examples I gave earlier, we would have, for example, the nuclear industry making nearly all the decisions about energy policy, car manufacturers making all transport decisions, and pharmaceutical  companies making all decisions about public health.

The formal  position is that commercial interests have a legitimate role as  supplicants in, or promoters of, their own cause when addressing wider public good considerations. But they cannot be judge and jury in their own cause.   The current position of the play equipment industry is quite the opposite:  it is promoter of its own cause, author of its own rule book, cartographer and border guard of its own territory.    Thus it has come to pass that virtually no provision that aspires to hang the sign ‘play’ on its door, can escape from the play equipment industry’s jurisdiction.  The fact that this is, formally speaking, a voluntary submission by play provision providers does not alter the fact.

How has this come to be?

I want now briefly to explore one possible, partial, explanation of how the position I describe has come about.  In what follows, notwithstanding their obvious importance, I am leaving to one side wider considerations of European law, how standard-setting bodies are established, policy aims directed at creating a free market in goods and services, the role of the courts, insurers, and much else.

I want instead to muse upon what might be called the ‘play world’.   Until relatively recently, I take this world primarily to comprise those with a background in, and commitment to, staffed play provision.  That world includes, in the UK, the four national play bodies, play training bodies, playwork theoreticians, philosophers  and practitioners, early years practitioners, and no doubt many more.

Historically speaking, unstaffed provision – traditionally described as ‘fixed equipment provision’ –  has not been the focus of sustained, forceful, practical  engagement  by the  ‘play world’.  This position was replicated in countless local authority departments that had a play service. These dealt mainly or exclusively with supervised provision, much of the energy and thinking directed towards adventure playgrounds, a form of provision that has iconic status in the play world.

In a completely separate ‘silo’, more often as not untouched by any theoretical or philosophical cogitation upon the matter of ‘play’, and not unusually utterly divorced from the play world, were those responsible for fixed equipment playgrounds – a depressingly accurate description of the provision.

Two services and two traditions within which the words ‘play’ and ‘children’ figured prominently but, as in the quip about America and Britain, two worlds separated by a common vocabulary (it was certainly not a ‘language’).

The point I seek to draw out is that, for historical reasons, the ‘play world’ was, and perhaps still is, ill-equipped to address unstaffed provision[4].  To a large extent it is only relatively recently that it is getting to grips with the sort of issues that profoundly affect what can actually be done on the ground, as distinct from the aspirations promoted in policy pronouncements.   Arguably, the  ‘play world’ has yet to get its head round (pardon the expression) what is required of it if it is going to have an extensive, sustained impact on unstaffed provision.  Part of what is required, from my perspective, is a more acute sense of the economic and structural factors affecting unstaffed provision, and the courage to address them.

The structural imbalance has been sustained, and arguably extended, whilst contemporaneously much energy was being expended on formulating play polices and strategies, both at national and local level.  So far as I am aware, both policies and strategies proved aspect blind when it came to considering the matters discussed here.   Indeed, it can be argued that, on this topic at least, policy and strategy exists in a parallel universe, untroubled or unaware that policy aspirations – not least in respect to creating more natural play environments  – are systematically countered or undermined by the current ‘structural imbalance’ that has been discussed here.   Play policy and strategy making is but a partial and inadequate activity if a vast swath of territory is relinquished to sectional interest.

What to do about this?

In terms of this article, consideration of that question – what to do about this? – is left dangling for the present.  It may be that the points I have made represent such a minority view that the question is effectively redundant.  We shall see.


[1] In ‘Play provision standards: occasions of trespass’ at bernardspiegal.com and http://www.playlink.org.uk I recognise that standards are legitimate so long as they do not stray into territory not theirs. Play equipment standards do stray.

[2] I do not propose to argue here the detail of why the ‘standard’ position about is mistaken. That has been addressed in two of my previous articles, and in publications such as HSE Managing Risk in Play Provision: implementation guide, which has useful things to say about, for example, ‘safe’ and ‘safety’ and, more widely, the need to include considerations of benefits in any discussion about, in this case, play.

[3] Actually, this raises interesting questions about the essential rationale informing play equipment standards. Arguably, notwithstanding the sort of evidence that is adduced by the industry to support its various contentions – for example, accident figures; impact tests – the ‘evidence’ it proffers might be said to create a blind spot as to the sort of ‘evidence’  that needs to be given more attention, for example, ethnographic evidence, psycho-sociological evidence; and, as indicated in a previous article, ‘common sense’.

[4] Of course, standards also affect staffed provision, such as schools and nurseries, but this does not undermines the general point I am making.

9 responses to “Structural imbalance: Public good and the play equipment industry

  1. Pingback: Standards, regulations, guidelines and the muted voice | Bernard Spiegal

  2. Having dispensed that earlierly playworkist querulosity, I should say that, like Tim, I like the style and content of this important and thoughtful piece.

    The nub of it is here for me:
    “how infringement of that principle has undermined the pursuit of public benefit”

    in the context of the public good, a key theme for Bernard.

    Just a quick point re ‘the play world’:

    that ‘play world’ might be better thought of as the ‘play advocacy world’ or the VISIBLE play world. In the less visible play world, things are a little different. There has been, for as long as the visible play world has existed, a pond with some bigger fish in it, like NPFA back in the day, for example. And every now and then the fish get fed up with the pond, and grow legs and leave, they migrate to somewhere they can be more effective, some of them, and for many that isn’t the playworld, and for some it is a wider playworld. There are many examples, like the playworkers who became local authority chief executives (2 that I know of), and recently there have been sevral moving into the play in schools arena, but I’ll just single out one who is a paradigmatic example: Rob Wheway.

    Disclosure: I count Rob a friend.

    He started as a playworker, became an NPFA regional officer, moved out of the play world into the play equipment world where he continues to operate as a friend to local authorities, helping them to save money on pointless inspections and providing a low-cost, ethical and professional service that has little truck with fashion and sticks close to the evidence. He also co- authored a classic publication on Play in housing Estates for JRF, and recently completed a superb ‘ludo-geographic’ (my neologism) survey for Cardiff City.

    Such is one life in the less visible play world.

    None of which detracts one jot from your thesis, Bernard, just sayin’ (as da yoof say) that the focus of your critique isn’t the whole of the play world.

    More power/elbow/etc…

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  3. ”I’m thinking of the ‘we need an adventure playground in every neighbourhood’ line of argument.“

    Tim, where did you find that straw man, in a skip round the back of a nice hotel in the early 80s? I’m sorry, but I don’t recognise it as a fair summary of a historical position – to me it sounds like a throwaway line wrenched from a complex nuanced debate and I can’t see why it might now be relevant. It’s a shame that your usually insightful, measured and proportionate writings are occasionally marred by playworkerist slights like this.

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    • Arthur (just catching up – should have ticked the box) I heard the ‘adventure playground in every neighbourhood’ argument more than once, in plain terms, and from several sources, back in the late ’90s in my first few years at the Children’s Play Council (or the National Voluntary Council for Children’s Play as it was then). Naming one name: Kevin Jenkins, then as now at Community Links, and also a Newham councillor (thank you google). I don’t know if he still holds this view. It’s true that I haven’t heard it too much recently. I hope that’s because of its evident problems as a position. Be that as it may, I do feel that the question of the role and place of adventure playgrounds needs further thought than it has so far received – and as I said, I hope to expand on this.

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      • Tim, I don’t doubt your perception: I’m sure there were folk hanging around NVCCP bending your ear with that ludiomeme.

        Might I then suggest, that you needed to have got out more? I’m joking – and being totally unfair – because surely the remit of your job for the NVCCP would not have allowed that. The only reason I’m harping on is because Bernard’s readers won’t be familiar with the debate and might take your opinion as gospel.

        Maybe folk finally let go the pipedream of fully funded integrated play provision across a conurbation, because it was politically dead, not because of any inherent flaws. You know much better than I how to play the art of the possible. Maybe that’s why it died the death.

        Enough banter.

        A query – you say: “advocating for supervised play”‘, but you also say “the question of the role and place of adventure playgrounds …”

        I am moved to ask, sir, what is the scope of your term ‘supervised play’? It’s not a term I recognise – is it coterminous with ‘adventure playgrounds’ for example or might it include OOS or play ranging?

        Before you go any further, please define your terms, old boy!

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  4. Thanks for comments thus far. It would be good if those involved in the equipment industry were to contribute; but also what I have called the ‘play world’ and public sector play provision providers. A point of clarification: the process of developing the EU Standard involves other interests than the industry itself. However, I think it is fair to say the result is an industry dominated view. Some reiterations: I am explicit that Standards – within their proper domain – can be good and useful things (I tackle this in the first article ‘..occasions of trespass’); I do not blame industry for doing as industry does, e.g. seeking dominant market positions; I do hold play provision providers responsible for allowing this situation to develop (for whatever reasons – these can be gone into another time); and I do think that until now the ‘play world’ has not been best equipped to deal with the issue. It is not yet clear that it is able even now to address the issues I have raised. Of course, it – though there will be a range of views, so there is probably not a neatly encapsulated ‘it’ – may disagree with some or all I’ve said. Perhaps ‘it’ will let us know.

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  5. I would like to hear from others, more knowledgeable than I am about the history of the playground equipment industry and its symbiotic relationship with public playgrounds, about the process by which the European (and before that the British) play equipment standards were produced and promulgated. Bernard’s article appears to take it as read that these standards were written by the industry, and now, through their quasi-legal force, are used by the industry not only to control the admission of new entrants to the industry, but even to control all the physical features of what is allowed to be called a public playground. There may well be a lot of truth in this allegation. As we all know, trade standards owe their origin to attempts by governments to regulate private business in the public interest, eg by preventing the addition of chalk to bread flour. As time goes by and products become more technically complex, however, governments become increasingly reliant on private business expertise to determine the content of regulation, and hence a dangerous circularity develops – particularly when, as now in the UK, an ideologically pro-business government is in power. The contemporary example of the food and drink industry shows that this problem is far from being restricted to the playground equipment industry. Nor is the problem of dominance of government by business interests just a matter of over-cosy regulatory regimes, as the energy sector demonstrates – but that’s another story. So I am not altogether disagreeing with Bernard, but I don’t think that the entire playground equipment industry can be tarred with the same brush, and I would welcome the chance to hear from industry insiders before I’m persuaded that the industry has made a bid for hegemony over the entire unstaffed playground sector. I think that Bernard may be closer to the mark when he suggests that public playground providers have sometimes been too timid and uncritical as purchasers of industry products, and too eager to subcontract their risk management responsibilities, for reasons with which we are familiar. But whoever is to blame for the current stalemate, and in whatever proportions, I certainly look forward to Bernard’s sequel: What Is To Be Done?

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  6. Hi
    Fully agree with the article. As an advocate for natural free play, the safety of what is concidered a play space has been hijacked to restrict learning through play.

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  7. A powerful argument put across in your customary style, Bernard. It must have been at least a decade ago – when I was at the Children’s Play Council – that I first became fully aware of the gulf you describe, between the ‘play world’ and those in charge of playgrounds. I do think the gulf is narrowing – but not fast enough. It arose in part because some of those advocating for supervised play have at times over the years had an overly narrow view of what ‘good enough’ play opportunities might mean. I’m thinking of the ‘we need an adventure playground in every neighbourhood’ line of argument. I hope to publish on this some time in the new year!

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