Inflation and public protests hit council’s playground revamps

Upgrade prices rise 40% while saved facilities add to budget pressures


By Iain Gray


RUNAWAY inflation costs and repeated public outcries over closure plans is likely to force the council to scale back its attempts to upgrade playgrounds.

Ards and North Down Council officials have warned that they now need an extra six-figure sum every year to carry out the local authority’s play strategy because of a huge rise in upgrade costs and a larger than expected maintenance bill.

As a result of the inflation crisis over the last two years, officials say, the upgrade plans cost 40% more than when the strategy was first put together in 2021.

That means the £500,000 per annum budget the council set aside for the project is now woefully inadequate.

And scrapping planned closures of smaller facilities, which politicians demanded after the moves sparked outrage among local communities every time they were tried, will also mean the council’s playground maintenance bill is much larger than expected.

The £300,000 annual maintenance budget for existing play facilities won’t come close to covering the price of keeping them in decent working order.

Councillors have been backing away from one of the central planks of the playground strategy, which was to axe smaller facilities in order to upgrade larger ones elsewhere in the same town or village.

The moves resulted in huge protests when they were suggested in Donaghadee, Groomsport and Kircubbin, leading politicians to halt all closures of playgrounds.

But the council hadn’t built the cost of keeping the threatened playgrounds going into the strategy’s budget; if they continue to operate, maintenance bills will be even higher.

Council officials say they now need at least an extra £200,000 in the upgrade budget to cover inflation price rises, plus another £120,000 in the maintenance budget to absorb increased costs.

And even if they get those six-figure budget boosts, they’d still be forced to heavily cut back on playground revamps.

Unless the council ploughs even more money into the upgrade project, officials say they’d be left with a choice of running either two major overhauls plus one smaller revamp per year, or one major plus three smaller upgrades.

That’s all set down in a report that was to be debated at a council committee meeting that got underway shortly after this newspaper went to press last night.

Officials state that due to the budget pressures, they’ll only be able to carry out six planned playground overhauls this year around the borough, some of which are very minor reworks.

They also want a full review of the play strategy, including a new business case taking a fresh look at the cost and financing of it, before the end of the current financial year.

The council’s 10-year play strategy came about after officials concluded that facilities across the borough were overly aimed at very young kids, leaving older children with nowhere to go.

They wanted to rectify that by upgrading a host of playgrounds, but controversially decided they’d need to axe a number of smaller facilities to do it.

Some towns and villages, they argued, had too many playgrounds for the size of their populations, and could stand to lose one play park if another one elsewhere was substantially improved.

That outraged families whose kids loved those smaller playgrounds, leading to protest campaigns that forced the council into climb downs every time closures were suggested.

Eventually politicians on the council bowed to public pressure, and two months ago agreed to take the closure moves out of their playground strategy.