UK’s parks could lose their swings as EU red tape lingers on

The playground at Beer has lost its swings, in part because of EU rules retained after Brexit
The playground at Beer has lost its swings, in part because of EU rules retained after Brexit - Dale Cherry

For generations, the children of Beer, in Devon, have enjoyed playing on the swings at a park built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Now the coastal park is being replaced with a pirate-themed play area, complete with slide and ship-themed climbing frame, as part of a £400,000 taxpayer-funded revamp of five parks in the region.

But there will be one notable omission. The new park will have no swings, partly because of EU standards retained in the UK after Brexit.

Despite the UK leaving the EU at the end of 2020, more than 4,000 tracts of EU legislation were copied and pasted into the British lawbooks – preventing officials from having to write thousands of new laws to replace those made over 47 years of union membership.

Among the Brussels regulations was rule EN1176, which defines safety requirements for children’s playground equipment. It sets out how much space there has to be between swings and how high they have to be off the ground, and limits the number of swings per bay to two.

Local councillors mulling the park revamp realised that they would not have the space for both swings and the new pirate attraction if they wanted to abide by standards that could help protect them from injury claims.

Under the rules, introduced in 1999, any repair or refurbishment of the park would mean the swings would have to be demolished because there is not enough room.

John Heath, an independent councillor for East Devon district council, told The Telegraph: “Families have complained to me, saying ‘we want the swings’ – around 15 to 20 mothers and some fathers too. They’re frustrated, I’m frustrated, we’re all frustrated by this.

“I certainly sympathise with them, and would be vociferously calling for the swings to come back myself if rules allowed it – but I’m not a legislator, and I’m not going to compromise on children’s safety. It has split the community, as other parishioners are in favour of the new pirate-themed play area.

“There were swings in that park for more than 40 years – my wife’s children used to play on them, and they brought a lot of joy and happiness to children. But the swings were past their sell-by date and couldn’t be replaced with new swings as the health and safety rules are different now compared to 40 years ago.”

Mr Heath added that the park was on top of South West Water sewage pipes, meaning there are manhole covers that need to be accessible in any redevelopment.

The remodelling of the playground was announced by Geoff Jung, the Liberal Democrat councillor responsible for parks, who cited the EU rules as one of the factors behind the move.

He said: “At Beer, there is a pirate-themed area with a slide and a ship climbing frame – although it wasn’t possible to include a swing [due to the space required by the European standards], we’ve selected the designs that provide the most play value and that reduce environmental impact through recycled materials.

“We are confident local children and visitors alike will love the new facilities.”

A council brochure advertising the new attraction at Beer
A council brochure advertising the new attraction at Beer - East Devon Council

But the loss of the swings has sparked a backlash from his colleagues on the council, who want Britain to break free of EU laws. The council is under no overall political control, with independents having the most seats, closely followed by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

Cllr Colin Brown, the Conservative group leader on East Devon District Council, said residents would be angry if “European laws were adopted for everything”.

“The problem is the Lib Dems have got a large say in most of the authorities now, and we’re fortunate in East Devon as we do at least have some Conservative councillors, but the majority of councillors in the rest of Devon are Lib Dems,” he said.

“The last thing the Lib Dems want to do is leave Europe, isn’t it? They’re being very political at the moment because you’ve got an election coming up.”

Britain helped create the European rules on playground safety more than 20 years ago and, since they were incorporated post-Brexit, they have become the default British standard of safety.

Among the rules threatening playgrounds are that traditional “to-and-fro” swings must have a seat ground clearance of 350mm in the rest position or 400mm for a tyre seat.

The rules state that “seats will have an average surface compression of more than 90 newton metres”, a measure of force exerted by a child on the swing. The minimum width between swing seats required in the EU rules is 300mm, and the distance between the seat and frame must be 200mm.

They are not mandatory, but the courts regard them as evidence of good practice and many school and public park tenders now require such compliance – in part to minimise the risk of personal injury claims.

They sit alongside British laws such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Children Act 1989, which require playgrounds to meet safety standards.

The example of Beer has sparked fears that other playgrounds could lose their swings
The example of Beer has sparked fears that other playgrounds could lose their swings - Dale Cherry

But the example of Beer has sparked fears that parks across the country risk losing their playground equipment if they are found not to comply with EN 1176.

David Jones, a senior Conservative MP, told The Telegraph: “This is just, in its own way, another example of why we need to be rid of retained EU law. As a consequence of the Retained EU Law Act, a large body of European law still prevails as assimilated British law.

“We should have our own UK standards – there is of course a UK regulatory regime, and we need to make sure that they replace the former EU regulations.

“We’ve got over 6,000 EU laws and regulations that we’ve absorbed as a consequence of our departure. We’re slowly working through those, but we need to accelerate it.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former Cabinet minister, told GB News: “It is weird that the Government hasn’t ditched these pettifogging regulations. If it had implemented the Retained EU Law Bill properly, this folderol would have been swept away.”

Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, has promised that around 600 pieces of EU law are being reviewed by the UK to make the country more business-friendly. But Brexiteers have called for ministers to go further and start a “bonfire” of EU regulations.

Last year, Mrs Badenoch said this would not be possible because of intransigence from civil servants, blaming Whitehall departments that “had focused on which laws should be preserved” when she entered her post.

Dr Amanda Gummer, the chairman of the Association of Play Industries (API) and a psychologist, said it was “a shame” for children that the swings in Beer were being removed, while stressing that having safe, well-designed inclusive playgrounds was vital for children’s mental health.

East Devon District Council said the swings were not being removed solely because of EU law
East Devon District Council said the swings were not being removed solely because of EU law

Councils that conformed to the EU rules were able to protect themselves from legal action, said Dr Gummer, adding: “Obviously, if kids get injured and they haven’t followed those standards, the council and possibly the installers would be liable for the claim. We would be risking our kids’ safety if we compromised the standards.”

She said most councils would say that they expect those standards to be adhered to.

David Yearly, ofthe Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said there was a large amount of health and safety legislation in place “to ensure users do not come into contact with other users, or with parts of the structure”.

The major playground manufacturers in Britain are among the API’s 60 members, including most used by councils, meaning they align with the EU rules.

East Devon District Council said the swings were not being removed solely because of EU law, with a spokesman saying: “There are various reasons why the plans for this particular park, with its limited space, do not include swings.”

The spokesman said the council worked with “three specialist companies, experienced in building play parks” who proposed three designs without swings, partly because of the EU standards.

“Even if sufficient space were available, the play area would consist of only a single set of swings, offering poor play value compared to the themed and tailored ship currently being delivered,” he added.

“Children’s safety is of paramount importance. As a council providing facilities for children, it is imperative that we adhere to these standards to minimise the risk of incidents.”