Highland councillors will next week discuss a strategy to bring the region’s 321 play parks up to scratch.
Highland Council has no capital budget at all for play parks and while the local authority is required by law to maintain them, it has no statutory duty to provide them in the first place.
As a result, Highland Council has run up a sizeable backlog of repairs and maintenance over the years.
There are 321 play parks across the Highlands including 93 in Inverness, eight of which are soon to close.
Together, they have 2,500 pieces of play equipment, however without continued investment, many parks have fallen into disrepair.
Highland Council estimates the repairs bill for 2022/23 stands at £3.5m.
What’s happening with Scottish Government cash?
The Scottish Government made a manifesto commitment to ensure all children can access play areas in their own community.
To fund that, they’ve pledged to invest £60m during this period of parliament.
However Highland Council’s share last year amounted to just £234,000.
And as the council ran out of time to spend the money, £232,000 will be carried forward into this financial year.
In 2022/23, Highland Council expects to receive a further £245,000.
However there is some hope for extra funds to be allocated sooner, as later this year, the Scottish Government says it will present plans for a multi-year settlement for councils.
This will allow local authorities to get ahead a bit, and plan how they will spend what resources they do have.
What are Highland Council’s plans?
Highland Council has adopted a place-based approach to its play parks, effectively devolving the decisions to area committees on the basis that each community will know best how to spend the cash.
In the last couple of years, area committees have undertaken a review of what they already have, and what they hope to deliver.
Some areas have already decided to reduce the number of play parks, focusing on quality over quantity.
Inverness can expect to drop from 93 parks to 85 while other areas are looking to consolidate their play parks, with Badenoch and Strathspey shutting three, taking their total to 20.
Meanwhile, area committees in Lochaber, Skye and Raasay, Dingwall and Seaforth and Easter Ross have each agreed to close down one play park.
The council’s £234,000 share of national funds doesn’t go far and to top it up, many area committees decided to use unspent Covid relief and place-based funding on Highland play parks.
Last year, they invested nearly £80,000 of Covid money and just short of £700,000 place-based funding into play parks.
Highland Council said it has already carried out “numerous repairs” including swing seats, chains, gates and fencing. Most sites have had their play bark replaced, as well as climbing nets and some small play items.
Maintenance such as weeding and painting has also helped, however a lot of work is still required to replace expensive play equipment across hundreds of parks.
To build some momentum, the council is hiring a play park co-ordinator, who will be tasked with overseeing the play park strategy.
Looking ahead, councillors will have a difficult decision on whether to close down some sites to focus investment on a few flagship play parks.
Ongoing maintenance is an issue too as the council’s revenue budget for play parks is just £176,900, which needs to cover staff labour, plant and fleet, materials and some contractor costs.
Members of the Highland Council’s communities and place committee will discuss the scale of the challenge next week.