Angela with her twin boys

UNICEF outraged by Hamilton mayor’s anti-playground budget – UPDATED

Opinion: So far the Hamilton City Council has ignored the pleas from the region’s families to save the city’s playgrounds, writes Angela Cuming. But will they listen to the United Nations Children’s Fund?


Update: The Hamilton City Council CEO has contacted the Spinoff disputing elements of this piece, requesting that “The Spinoff acknowledge the article has factual errors and remove it from public view”. More details at the foot of the article.


I live in a city where children are thought so little of that the mayor would rather spend $25,000 on a new balustrade for his mayoral balcony so he has a better view than build disabilty-friendly playgrounds.

Hamilton City Council’s mayor Andrew King this week released his proposed mayoral budget and it contains exactly ZERO dollars for any new playgrounds of any type in Hamilton for the next 10 years. None. For 10 years. [Note: The Hamilton City Council CEO says this is not correct; more details at end.] Gone are plans for at least five large destination playgrounds that have car parking, shade, water fountains, and toilets. Gone are plans for smaller, neighbourhood playgrounds.

And it gets worse.

King says the council will ”most likely remove” some neighbourhood playgrounds. No new ones and existing ones will be torn down. And there’s no money in the budget for the ”maintenance and renewal of large playgrounds”. That means playgrounds will be left to go to ruin because the mayor doesn’t want to pay for their upkeep.

Mayor Andrew King who won by six votes

I live in Hamilton and have three little boys and I’ve spent spent the best part of this year trying to convince the council to keep building playgrounds.

They don’t appear to be listening to me – or to the thousands of other mums and dads and grandparents out there who know how important good playgrounds are – but perhaps they will listen to UNICEF.

Yes, that UNICEF. The United Nations Childrens’ Fund. The leading charity that has been working for more than 70 years to protect the rights of children around the world. That’s how serious this is – UNICEF has now stepped into the debate.

I spoke to UNICEF about King’s plan and they called the move ”frustrating and outrageous” and criticised him for calling playgrounds ”toys” and constantly referring to them as ”gold plated” and ”nice to haves” but not essential.

”Play and playgrounds are not ‘nice to have’. Play is a fundamental right of children and if Hamilton City Council really cares about families in their city, they will view playgrounds as a positive investment,” says Jacqui Southey, UNICEF NZ’s child rights education manager.

”Playgrounds are an absolutely fundamental investment for the positives of a community. How does the council perceive children? Do they see them as legitimate citizens in their community? If I was a parent thinking of moving to Hamilton I would be thinking hard about that because it should be a place for the whole family, not just the adults.”

King – a millionaire former used car salesman who won the mayoralty by only six votes – notes in his report his plan is the ”lowest cost to deliver and operate”. How touching he thinks so little of our children that he reaches for the bargain bin when deciding what facilities to build for them.

Angela’s children at the playground

”Calling playgrounds ‘gold plated toys’ is a really derogatory term,” Southey says.

”When you talk about these destination playgrounds they are not gold-plated toys, they are essential for the inclusion of small children and children with particular needs to be able to participate and be included in their community.”

”The data and research is vast. Play is not a luxury.”

”We know play is more than simply having fun. When children play with other children, as well as other adults, they are constructing their own identity.”

“They are working out social norms, they are developing a whole other set of learning skills like co-operation, overcoming challenges, they test perceived limitations, they negotiate challenges and they give things a go.”

“They will use these skills as they become adults later in life or teens navigating the ups and downs of teenagehood. Play is fundamental for the ongoing development of children right through their lives and into adulthood.”

Destination playgrounds not only benefit children, but adults too, UNICEF says.

“They are a point where families can come together,” Southey tells me. ”Children playing in isolation is usually not what happens. Children are there with their friends, their peers, their siblings, their mums, their dads, grandparents. They (destination playgrounds) are a place for celebrations, for birthday parties, and for everyday enjoyment of life. ”

Of extra concern to UNICEF was the Council’s plan to develop green space around the city to build 9500 new homes by 2027 (”I want to churn out sections” was the mayor’s campaign promise) without any new playgrounds.

”We are seeing in a modern world that spacious backyards are disappearing,” Southey says.

”More and more children have limited outdoor space as part of their daily lives so playgrounds are becoming more and more important.”

Angela with her children at the playground

When planning new housing developments, council must take into account the rights of those children who will be living there. Rights not only include things like clean drinking water and rubbish collection, a healthy environment, they also include playgrounds.

”When you think about these packed suburbs and children living in these spaces with limited backyards and play spaces, they are so reliant on councils to supply their play areas as well.

”UNICEF places such high value on playgrounds that in times of disaster and times of need, one of the first things we do is establish a safe space for children to learn and play. These child-friendly spaces exist in the most challenged parts of the world: the Congo, Syria, Bangladesh, Haiti. Is Hamilton part of that list?”

Hamilton should take the lead of Christchurch, she says. In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake one of the first things built by Christchurch City Council was the Destination Playground known as the Margaret Mahy playground.

“In times of trauma children need a sense of normality and play is a normal part of every child’s life. They need a space that is safe and is appealing and is attractive and is a place where they can come together with not only other children but with safe and caring adults. Destination playgrounds provide those spaces.

“We absolutely applaud Christchurch City Council investment in the destination playground that was designed to support the joy and play of children in their community after such a significant event.”

The council will meet on Wednesday December 6 to debate King’s budget.

I guess if he gets his way he can toast the demise of Hamilton’s playgrounds from his mayoral balcony.

I hear it’s got a lovely view.

Angela Cuming is a print and radio journalist and a mum to three boys under three. A columnist for The Spinoff Parents, she is leading the community campaign Save Hamilton’s Playgrounds.


Editor’s note:

Hamilton City Council CEO Richard Briggs has contacted the Spinoff via a spokesperson to dispute elements of the piece above. He says it is incorrect to say there is no funding in the mayor’s preferred budget for any new playgrounds in the next 10 years. “There is $3 million capital spend plus $1.27 million operational expenditure proposed on new or upgraded playgrounds in the next 10 years. This is the Mayor’s preferred option, but there are also other options with higher levels of cost for Councillors to consider.”

Briggs adds: “Ms Cuming states there’s no money in the budget for maintenance and renewal of large playgrounds. This is incorrect, there is $7.9 million in the budget for renewals for current playgrounds. This includes the renewal and maintenance of Destination Playgrounds.”

The original article included the paragraph, “Of extra concern to UNICEF was the Council’s plan to develop green space around the city to build 9500 new homes by 2027 (“I want to churn out sections” was the mayor’s campaign promise) without any new playgrounds.”

Briggs says: “This is incorrect. In addition to the $3 million, playground provision has been included within the proposed capital expenditure allocated for open space provision in growth areas. This includes two playgrounds in the Peacocke growth cell.”

Beyond the subheading “New or Upgraded Playgrounds” in the Ten Year Plan, however, every detail thereafter referred to upgrades, without any further mention of new facilities. One Hamilton councillor, Angela O’Leary, has concluded that “no new playgrounds of ANY kind will be built anywhere in the city for the next 10 years”.

Further, Under “disadvantages” for the mayor’s preferred option, are the words “Operational budget does not enable maintenance and renewal of large playgrounds”.

The Spinoff put this to the CEO’s spokesperson seeking clarification, and asked for a confirmation that new playgrounds would be built under the mayor’s preferred option.

The response: “The Mayor’s Recommendation specifically refers to $3m in funding for new or upgraded playgrounds. Should this proposal (one of three options in the initial draft budget) be approved, the detail including locations and the number of new and upgraded playgrounds would be confirmed through community consultation. At this stage the proposals are mayoral recommendations only and is the first stage of the 10-Year Plan process. This process will run until June 2018 before a final budget is adopted.

“At this stage no final decisions have been made (or can be made) regarding the number of new and upgraded playgrounds. Accordingly, Operational and Depreciation figures were worked out based on what it would cost to maintain 14 Neighbourhood upgrades. The intent of this statement was to flag that Operational and Renewals allocation under this option would not cover maintenance costs if the final (approved) programme was to deliver a higher number of new and/or large playgrounds.

“The $7.9m in the capital budget is for renewals associated with all the playgrounds we already have, including Destination Playgrounds. It does not allow for renewals funding that may be required for new or upgraded playgrounds.”


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