Love me tender…

In our work, we quite often find ourselves talking about Multi Use games Areas (MUGAs), the fenced pitches that are everywhere, in parks and housing estates and schools. This happens because in practice they are dominated by boys: their design and territorialisation mean that girls end up being excluded from using them.   Despite this, councils keep building the same standard MUGAs and girls continue to be excluded. On the basis that (1) most councils don’t want to produce facilities that exclude girls and (2) an oft cited definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome, we’re trying to understand what’s going on.

Is the problem with the girls? We have seen a lot of commentary from people who suggest that if only they could get girls feeling better running about and getting sweaty, the problem would be solved and everyone could keep building MUGAs just as they have done.  But we know there are plenty of girls who are fine running about and getting sweaty, but they don’t get a look in on the MUGA. Some research in Vienna might explain why.  They asked girls if they would ask to join in a game on a MUGA with a group of boys: 84% of the time that the girls had asked, they were rebuffed “with sexual insults”. If you have ever been a girl, you know how that goes. And the design is problematic: it is a caged area with a single narrow gate; once you’re in there’s no way out if someone bigger and stronger than you is blocking the entrance. It doesn’t feel good.

Is the problem with the people who design and install the equipment? When we talk to play professionals and equipment providers, they are well aware of the problems MUGAs present when it comes to creating inclusive spaces for teenagers. They have read the research, often they have commissioned the research; they have created more inclusive designs and tried to engage with councils about how to make things better. So, it doesn’t appear to be a lack of appetite to create designs which work for girls and boys.

Is it the experts? It’s a bit confusing to know whether we are supposed to like experts or not…. Pre pandemic, we know the people of Great Britain had “had enough of experts”, but we’re still quite keen on listening to people who have taken time to study and understand a particular area of expertise. So do the experts say that MUGAs are good?  Do we keep building them because is it because there is lots of research that demonstrates the benefits of MUGAs for a community? Well, funnily enough, no. To quote  the London Borough of Islington Sports Facilities Update 2018 :

There is no method of calculating or benchmarking the demand and supply of MUGAs and given their function is to facilitate informal activity, there is no trusted method of calculating usage….”

To translate, thousands of MUGAs have been built but we have no idea who uses them or if they are any good.

Some people have drawn our attention to the Field In Trust’s Guidance for Outdoor sport and play,  saying that this means they have to provide a MUGA or skate park. Looking at table 2 on page 7, we can understand how people might think that. It defines alternative provision for teenagers, like a MUGA or a skate park.  So people take that as the law.

But we have spoken to Fields in Trust and they have emphasised the MUGA and the skateparks are just examples of alternative provisions: Fields in Trust’s have told us that they don’t intend their current guidance to be read as saying that authorities and developer have to build more MUGAs.  But people do.

Is it the bean counters? Sports England budget guide suggests allowing about £160,000 for one MUGA, so they aren’t a cheap option.  Maintenance is a problem. And from the Islington Report above we know that councils don’t have a way of assessing value for money in terms of usage. So, it doesn’t seem likely it is the finance folk driving this.

So, why do MUGAs keep being built? Well we are starting to think that a chunk of the problem lies in the tendering teams at local councils.  Manufacturers can design all the inclusive ideas they want, but  tendering teams in local councils keep specifying MUGAs with high fences and narrow gates as the right provision for teenagers. Once the tender has gone out, that’s it: the MUGA will be installed with high fences and narrow gates, and frankly there isn’t much you can do to a MUGA with a 3 m tall fence and a narrow entrance to make it more welcoming to girls.

So, what we’d really like to do is talk to people who are involved in writing tenders for councils, and understand what drives their decision making and how they think about equality provisions and the Public Sector Equality Duty when they are putting together a tender. So if that’s you, please do get in touch. We’d love to have a chat.

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