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It is being reported that claims are made that is can be against the law for children to play in the street.

Liz Swift thought a basketball hoop on wheels pushed to the corner of her street on sunny afternoons would be a great way to keep her 13-year-old active. But the local authority did not agree. The family received letters from Waltham Forest council warning them that children playing in the street were “causing a nuisance to neighbours”.

She said: “The council told me they were breaking the law with their games because they were obstructing the highway. They always move out of the way for cars and they are never out after dark.”

Then in February, said Swift, the police arrived to investigate a report about her children playing. “The police took no action when they saw what was happening but the council asbo team are insistent the children can’t play there. They even came to examine a wall after a ball went over it, telling me it was unacceptable.

I find such a claim implausible, considering the large amount of my childhood that was spent playing in the street with no legal problems. Is there any law that could prohibit children playing in the street?

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s161 Penalties for causing certain kinds of danger or annoyance, Highways Act 1980

... (3) If a person plays at football or any other game on a highway to the annoyance of a user of the highway he is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding [F3 level 1 on the standard scale]. ...

(See also the s137 offence of wilful obstruction.)

Some places may also have their own related bylaws, e.g.

No person shall on any land adjoining a street play any game in a manner likely to cause obstruction to any traffic or to cause danger to any person in such a street

Made under s235 of the Local Government Act 1972, for the prevention and suppression of nuisances.

Traveling further back in time, the Highway Act 1835 provided for penalties on persons who "play at Football or any other Game on any Part of the said Highways, to the Annoyance of any Passenger or Passengers" and, in London, the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 similarly made it an offence to "any Kite or play at any Game to the Annoyance of the Inhabitants or Passengers, or who shall make or use any Slide upon Ice or Snow in any Street or other Thoroughfare, to the common Danger of the Passengers."

I find such a claim implausible, considering the large amount of my childhood that was spent playing in the street with no legal problems.

It seems possible that the authorities turned a blind eye or your behaviour didn't come to their attention, or your street was designated as a 'play street' (introduced by the Street Playgrounds Act 1938, currently provided for by sections 29 to 31 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 as amended by the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991). Also, many alleged offenders might be younger than the criminal age of responsibility.

According to TJ Miller MP (Colchester) in Hansard, speaking in 1860, in 1859 44 of London's children were sent to prison for playing games in the streets, and by April 1860 25 had been sent to prison - apparently Manchester had imprisoned none.

In my youth we played in the street although we didn't put up basketball hoops, football goals or other such objects. These stories in the media seem to be rare and involve circumstances where the local authority received too many complaints, particularly when there is damage to homes, cars or flowerbeds - which may amount to criminal damage.

Blackpool in 2006

Glenfield area of Leicester, 2007

Newark, Nottinghamshire, 2008

Manchester, 2010 - although this seems to be based on one complaint

Hat-tip Pedestrian Liberation for the information about the older legislation and arrests of children.

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  • Is a highway in the context of your first quote any kind of paved road or just a high speed motor way?
    – quarague
    May 17 at 13:39
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    @quarague At common law "a highway is a way over which there exists a public right of passage, that is to say a right for all His Majesty’s subjects at all seasons of the year freely and at their will to pass and repass without let or hindrance." So in this context a street is a highway (provided it is not a gated piece of land privately owned).
    – Lag
    May 17 at 17:11
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The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984

Starting at s29, it gives local authorities the ability to designate streets as play streets and to regulate traffic accordingly.

While not specifically prohibited, the fact that some streets can be designated for children’s play strongly implies that children are not permitted to play on streets not so designated.

More broadly, the tort of nuisance could capture children playing irrespective of where they are doing so. There have been actions taken both successfully and unsuccessfully.

I find such a claim implausible, considering the large amount of my childhood that was spent playing in the street with no legal problems.

Is not really a basis for legal analysis because:

  1. That was then, this is now, and
  2. Legality is not decided by personal anecdote.

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