New Wisbech play park is busy, vibrant and optimistic- will they be able however to see off the critics?

HARDLY a week goes by without Waterlees play park being in the news - often for all the wrong reasons.

Whether it’s police refusing to go there at night or critics complaining of unruly behaviour into the early hours, the park has not enjoyed the best of starts.

But has it? Editor JOHN ELWORTHY accepted an invitation from Cambridgeshire County Council officials to visit the park and found it extremely busy, vibrant and optimistic about its future.

Will, however, the council be able to see off its critics?

YOUNGSTERS using the �1million adventure play park in Waterlees have voted with their feet, arms, legs and hands to declare it a resounding success.


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Despite the arguments about putting it there in the first place still raging, numbers using the park continue to rise.

Orchards Primary School now uses it on Friday afternoons for supervised play and staff at Meadowgate special school are being trained to enable disabled young people to play there.

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Helen Williams, head of Orchards, described it as an “excellent facility - we’ll certainly be taking advantage of it”.

Gill Harrison, head of early years and childcare for Cambridgeshire County Council, said the park puts “controlled risk and challenge back to children’s play”.

She is adamant the park has been put in the right place, for the right people and at the right time.

“It was built here because there was a proven need,” she says, recalling how Play Pathfinder funding was used to equip 33 play spaces across Cambridgeshire with Wisbech getting the only one new play park.

She added, rather ruefully, that “some people want it to fail”. She’s determined it won’t.

The park, due to be officially opened next month, has withstood a barrage of criticism from a small sector of the community.

It has also attracted criticism for not implementing immediately all the planning conditions and for allowing older people to gain access at night.

These are issues Ms Harrison is working on as well as having to find �50,000 to pay for repairs to vandalised equipment since it opened last year.

The damage has meant, for instance, disabled toilets and a wet room in one of the barges being out of action until repairs are made.

It has also meant that steel shutters have had to be built for the barges, one used as a playroom and caf� and the other for office space and storage.

Whoever is to blame for the vandalism, Ms Harrison is determined the play park should stay and prosper - a view echoed by hundreds of parents of the children who use it each week.

Ultimately, however, it’s likely to be the community itself that decides the scale of its success.

Effectively the park is designated ‘public open access’ which means that it is equipped to operate independently of the play leaders and supervisors who are there much of the time.

COUNCILLOR David Wheeler, busy seeking re-selection to Fenland District Council, was among those who campaigned to get the park in his ward.

Cllr Wheeler, a firm advocate of the principles that lay behind the play park, said: “The most important activity a person takes on is play.”

He says he has received threats from those who not only want the park to ‘go away’ but resent it being put there in the first place.

Cllr Wheeler remains ambivalent about whether a reformed residents group might help; he believes the established community neighbourhood forum is as good a place as any to discuss issues.

Such re-assurance, however, has not been of great comfort to one visible and vocal opponent, Alan Lay.

He’s kept up an onslaught against the county council for not keeping the park secure enough at night for allowing youngsters to enter on a Sunday when, technically, it still remains closed.

“The foolhardy and dangerous play is allowed to continue, and with no action taken on behalf of any authority it is condoned and accepted,” he says in one of his many e-mails to this paper enclosing photographs showing the park being used outside of normal times.

“God help the person that slips or is pushed off,” he wrote after photographing another incident.

I RECENTLY commented on Twitter that the county council should “sort it or close it” but that, in truth, was before I had spent some time in Waterlees.

Potentially the play park has the capacity to innovate, illuminate and enrich a whole generation of young people. Closure is not an option for the council, nor should it be.

However, for it to prosper long-term, it may need a much stronger community ethos to galvanise it and that can only come through engagement but not necessarily pacification of the critics.

In its haste to secure funding of such gargantuan proportions – a rarity in itself for Fenland and for Wisbech in particular - it would be a shame if insufficient attention was given to those who would prefer it simply went away.

PANEL

A MUCH maligned fire pit to teach children about safety is used occasionally and sometimes for barbecues.

However, it became an unexpected centre of attention last week after neighbours spotted smoke coming from the park at night and dialled 999.

Firefighters arrived to find a family out for a picnic - and they had lit the barbecue to cook their dinner.

PANEL

WHEELCHAIR users of the park can use roundabouts that have been specially adapted so they sit alongside able-bodied youngsters. It’s a welcome addition to the park.

Staff are determined even more should be done to help disabled young people. A specially adapted seat is being built - the first in the country - to enable disabled youngsters to access the play area’s zip wire.

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