Children most notable in national planning policies through their absence – what needs to change?

Dr Jenny Wood

The Royal Town Planning Institute recently released ‘Child Friendly Planning In the UK: A Review‘, authored by Dr Jenny Wood of I-SPHERE and A Place in Childhood, and Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects. The report examines planning policy and legislation at a national level across all four UK nations to assess the extent to which each country covers children’s human rights. Here, Dr Jenny Wood reflects on the findings of the report, and suggests ways to include children more directly in planning of public spaces.

Children and young people are too often excluded from public space. Whether this be under the auspices of child protection, or whether it be to avoid what some consider nuisance of children playing outdoors or young people hanging out on the streets. The result is a drastic reduction in their movements since at least the 1970s, heavily suggesting that town planning is failing children. This drew great attention earlier this year when The Guardian broke a news story about children living in social housing being excluded from a play space their peers in private housing could access.

Child friendly planning in the UK‘ challenges this trend and provides a basis to understand what planning does and does not provide for children at present. Through the review, we examined the national level planning policies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as our basis, we drew on the term ‘child friendly planning’ from UNICEF’s Child Friendly City model, in which all children’s human rights are met socially and spatially. We also looked at how planning policy appears to interact (or not) with child focused policy at the national level in each nation.

We played close attention to three rights in particular:

  • Article 12 – A right to be heard and taken seriously in all matters affecting the child;
  • Article 15 – A right to gather and use public space, providing no laws are broken; and
  • Article 31 – A right to play, rest, leisure and access cultural life.

Combined, we used these to see children’s use of space and participation in planning as a matter of both social and spatial justice.

Overall Findings

Each nation has a different planning system with a slightly different focus. What is most notable across all four is the absence of specific attention to children’s spatial needs. Indeed, the differences amongst the child age group are rarely acknowledged or addressed at all. This is problematic as the very youngest children rely on their carers to govern their mobility, but teenagers can make many of their own choices.

Economic matters are generally given most prominence by national planning documents, and in most cases social issues are relegated to guidance rather than policy. Meanwhile, Equalities legislation that would ideally give weight to the needs of children tends to focus on older adults, and we couldn’t locate relevant impact assessments on every national planning policy. We also found that police-issued design guidance, Secured by Design, that carries weight across the UK frames children’s play and gathering in a narrow and negative light.

Despite the generally bleak picture, we draw out good practice and key future opportunities in the report. A key benefit of the UK’s devolved government system is the ability to learn from new ideas and policy initiatives in each nation.

Below is a brief summary of our findings for each nation, followed by our nine recommendations that cover all four UK jurisdictions.


Nearly all national guidance on planning in England comes from the National Planning Policy Framework, which should be read alongside National Planning Policy Guidance. These say little of children as a distinct group, or their rights, and the nature of the English planning system is that discretion is left mostly to local authorities to articulate their own policies through local plans and related documents. Children are also poorly covered under Equality legislation, despite ‘age’ being a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

Design guidance in Manual for Streets and Manual for Streets 2 do go further in responding to children’s needs with regard play. However, we suggest that the recommendations and mechanisms are weak, and could go further to present children’s play and use of public space in a more positive light. There doesn’t seem to be anything specific that would guide a planner in involving children in decision-making.

Government reforms in 2010 led to a loss of many child-focused policy initiatives, and this makes it hard for advocates in England to progress ideals based on children’s human rights. However, local developments in the form of the new London Plan, and five child friendly cities and communities schemes in operation across the country (some UNICEF-led, others independent such as Bristol, Leeds and the London Borough of Hackney). In the absence of strategic impetus, we particularly commend these local schemes for furthering child-friendly principles.


Planning in Scotland is governed at the national level by the National Planning Framework 3, and Scottish Planning Policy. It is the latter that provides most guidance relevant to the day to day planning of local authorities. This is supplemented by design guidance and Planning Advice Notes. These go some way to recognise children as a distinct group, but tend to focus on specific facilities for children’s play, or relate to children through language such as ‘people with children’. Play and gathering is generally approached only through the lens of providing specific facilities. Meanwhile, children’s participation in the process is given only passing mention with no further guidance.

Child-focused policy and legislation on children is relatively strong in Scotland, with a focus on human rights and well-being. Yet, cross-over between these initiatives and planning seems limited. Importantly, the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 now gives statutory rights for children’s participation in planning decisions, and stipulates that local authorities produce ‘Play Sufficiency Assessments’ which currently exist only in Wales. Scottish Government is also seeking to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law. Alongside the participation of Aberdeen in a Child Friendly City and Community Initiative, this gives grounds for optimism as to the potential for much more child-friendly planning in Scotland in future.


Planning in Wales is governed at the national level by the National Development Framework (NDF) which at the time of writing the report (September 2019) was in draft form out for consultation, and Planning Policy Wales. It is the latter that provides most guidance relevant to the day to day planning of local authorities. However, Welsh Government have released a ‘Young People’s Summary’ of the NDF and resources to inform young people about planning. This is supplemented by design guidance and Technical Advice Notes.

Unlike other UK countries, Wales has a statutory duty for local authorities to assess the sufficiency of play opportunities for children, and to take actions to secure better play opportunities. This is called the Play Sufficiency Duty and should involve planning authorities in these processes. Children’s human rights are also enshrined in Welsh legislation and policy.

Whilst we identify ways to further children’s human rights through the Welsh planning system, the setup and content of policies is broadly supportive of child-friendly aims. This is particularly aided by national planning policies having been revised recently to account for The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, and the climate emergency. This places children more firmly as stakeholders in planning approaches in the present and future. Cardiff is also seeking to become a Child Friendly City. We believe that much of the child-friendliness of Welsh planning will come down to future implementation and connection across the policy areas that support children.

Northern Ireland 

Planning in Northern Ireland is governed at the national level by the Spatial Planning Policy Statement for Northern Ireland, and the Regional Development Strategy 2035. Living Places, a piece of Supplementary Planning Guidance is also relevant, and community planning is more linked to spatial planning than in other UK nations at present.

Children are not represented as a distinct group within national planning policy, though ‘Shared Space’ is given particular prominence. This relates to the healing of physical and social divisions that exist in Northern Ireland as a legacy of the troubles.

Children’s rights are given more prominence outside of planning policy, with specific guidance on children’s inclusion that refers directly to the UNCRC. If implemented effectively, this would give children a say in planning matters. There is also suggestion of further work being done to look at child-friendliness at the national level. However, the lack of decision-making capacity in Northern Ireland due to the suspended government can make it difficult to further this agenda.

In recognition that Northern Ireland is a small nation, we give prominence to the two child friendly city schemes currently in operation. These cover both Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, with Belfast having the longest running scheme of any UK city. We commend this work which appears to increasingly highlight the need for built-environment approaches.

Recommendations across the UK:


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