The Big Picture: How safety trumped fun

Next week we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Community Links – it’s a time for reflection.

London’s Docklands in the late 1970s was becoming a wasteland. Cranes still hung high across the water, gaunt and motionless. The industry on the river had almost gone the regeneration yet to begin. There were no children’s facilities in many neighbourhoods. Some of us began to raise a little money at school and bought a double-decker bus. We used to say that we converted it into a playbus. Actually we took the seats out, hammered in a sandpit, begged some second-hand carpet, appealed to friends for old games and bought a football. It was a crude conversion. Volunteers from the Plaistow Bus garage drove it to regular playschemes across the area.

The bus was popular: 130 children on a drab November Sunday. Running the lights off the battery all day meant there’d be nothing left come 6pm. I can still picture 40 children push-starting the old Routemaster, cheering as it juddered into life and falling on top of one another on the icy tarmac as it gently pulled away.

I’m not sure who would close us down first if we tried to do something similar today. We had no CRB or health and safety checks, no training, no “permissions” sought and none, it seems, required. Part of the adult, professional me now shudders at the risk, but it worked.

We no longer ask eight year-olds to push-start double-decker buses yet the principles of the bus project still underpin the work of Community Links. With basic resources, creative thinking and a lot of enthusiasm we can all do useful and interesting things and engage the whole community in the process.

It couldn’t happen in the same way today. Nor should it. Only a fool would question the value of volunteer checks and health and safety legislation. Each new rule is sensible but I worry about the cumulative effect. We require ever more legislation protecting us from every conceivable hazard yet we live in a society that is still more fearful, suspicious and risk averse. Like drinking salty water, each slug of new legislation drives our thirst for more.

Caution carries a price. As community action is increasingly professionalised, centralised, systematised and sanitised there comes a point where it isn’t community action at all. The pendulum has swung too far.

David Robinson is the co-founder of Community Links, and is now a senior adviser. He is also the originator of We Are What We Do, the movement which inspires people to use their every day actions to change the world. In July 2007 he was appointed to lead the prime minister’s new Council on Social Action.

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