Playground closed by cuts is reopened for private pupils

Politicians ‘appalled’ that school took over former youth project site

Friday, 26th July 2019 — By Briony Pickford

Nickie Aiken

The space is in the Warwick ward of council leader Nickie Aiken

A PLAY project that was forced to shut because of a brutal round of youth service funding cuts has reopened as a private school playground.

The Sussex Play Project fell victim to spending cuts by Westminster Council in 2016 that closed down several public facilities across the borough.

The council has since then been renting the former public space to Eaton Square School, which has begun using it as a play space for fee-paying pupils only.

Conservative councillors, including leader Nickie Aiken, are said to be “appalled” and did not know about the deal “until it was too late”.

Darius Davies, who grew up in Pimlico, said: “This is the physical embodiment of gentrification, this is what it looks like. This used to be Sussex Play Project for everyone. Now this is Eaton Square School Playground for kids whose parents can afford £6,000 a term.”

He added: “With this shut, all that will happen is kids will go out and play on the street and get into trouble that way, which is what we were doing but then we could come here and stay out of that kind of trouble. For me and loads of people my age who grew up in Pimlico, this was such a formative part of our childhood.

“At the back there used to be a little pottery room where I think it was the only time kids in Pimlico ever learned how to make little pottery bowls.”

The council used to run youth services from the play centre on site and in school holidays ran activity schemes so youngsters had a safe and fun place to go.

When the council stopped funding all youth services in Westminster and the project closed, parents said they were told a new service provider would take over.

But it didn’t, and the site closed in September 2016. The space is in the Warwick ward of Cllr Aiken, who has recently apologised for the 2016 youth spending cuts, made before she became council leader.

The public playground project was an idea of Veronica Whitworth, still a local resident, who as a 14-year-old in July 1970 wrote to the council to ask if one of the old bomb sites could be turned into a place for local children to play.

“You mention a new playground for children in Pimlico. I think one good place where it could situated is the site between Winchester and Sussex Street as is there is quite a bit of space there,” she wrote.

With rising youth crime and deprivation in Westminster, Steven Saxby, the Labour candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster constituency, has set up a petition to call on the council to “bring Sussex Street Playground” back into public use.

The council has, following a public backlash, said the playground will be open on Fridays from 4pm to 6pm and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm. Funding from “ward budgets” is being used to provide the service.

A council spokesman said the decision to lease the space to the private school was made three years ago “rather than see the site mothballed”, and added: “It’s unlikely the lease to the school will be continued once it expires next year.”

Conservative Warwick ward councillor Jacqui Wilkinson said: “My fellow ward councillors and I were appalled by the decision to lease this playground out. This was not a decision that ward councillors were made aware of until it was too late.”

Sebastian Hepher, Eaton Square School principal said: “Working with the local community is an essential part of life at Eaton Square School. We were delighted upon request from Westminster Council to make available the Sussex Street Playground for community use for the times requested. We are fully supportive of the council and will continue to work with them to enable as many children as possible to benefit from the playground.”

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