No ball games signs stopped play for children across the country – with far-reaching consequences. Now moves are underway to remove them, finds Sandra Dick.

For a generation of would-be footballers, three little words on the side of a gable wall or pinned to a fence meant an abrupt end to their fun and games.

Rather than being able to practice their skills bashing a ball off a neighbour’s wall or drilling it home between makeshift goalposts, ‘no ball games’ signs meant skulking home with angry adults’ shouts ringing in their ears.

As well as halting their fun, the dearth of children playing football in the street where they can naturally develop their skills has been linked by some to Scotland’s international team’s slump in the world rankings.

Now, however, the battle against obesity and a fresh drive to encourage children to rediscover the joy of street football, makeshift tennis and good old rounders, means many of Scotland’s ‘no ball games’ signs may now be on a shaky peg.

A new shift towards embracing children’s outdoor play has prompted a number of local authorities across Scotland to reconsider the impact of the signs. It comes against new legislation requiring planning authorities to ensure decent play areas and improved access to play facilities is encouraged in new developments.

Among the councils taking steps to rethink the signage is North Lanarkshire, birthplace to illustrious football talents such as Sir Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Davie Cooper and Jock ‘Tiger’ Shaw, who grew up honing their skills in the streets around their homes.

The council has now published a survey asking residents for their views on the proposal to withdraw all ‘no ball games’ signs from communities across the district unless there are an obvious health and safety reasons for them to be retained.

The signs are set to be removed from areas other than car parks and roads by next May.

A North Lanarkshire Council spokesperson said: “The council encourages children and young people to be active and have a healthy lifestyle, and the proposal to remove these signs opens up more opportunities for children to play outdoors in their neighbourhoods.”

The move to rip down the signs is being seen as a step back to times when children were actively encouraged to play in the streets around their home, with hopes it can raise exercise levels, help in the battle against childhood obesity and improve young people’s ball skills.

Countless ‘no ball games’ signs cropped up in housing estates across the country in the 1970s mainly in response to rising numbers of households becoming car owners.

Rather than protecting children from vehicles, the signs were mainly devised to prevent the damage a stray football, cricket or tennis ball could cause to a windscreen.

Although not legally enforceable, they acted as a deterrent to children and their parents, driving them indoors just as children’s television and electronic games became more accessible.

Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum welcomed the move to rethink the signs and called for a societal shift in how children’s outdoor play is perceived.

“In some cases, it’s concern over the noise children make when they play that has been the triggering factor for these signs cropping up. That’s life, we have to live with children laughing, shouting.

“It might be a bit of a disturbance, however, it’s important that they have space which allows them to have unstructured play.

“If that’s impossible then there must be safe routes and paths to spaces which can offer these facilities.

“By not providing those, you are storing up problems for the future. Children go home, sit in bedrooms playing their video games and don’t get the exercise they need. A lot of people are very intolerant,” he added. “A societal change has to take place.”

Aberdeen City Council became the first city authority in Scotland to remove the killjoy signs four years ago.

Former Scotland striker Denis Law took up the council’s offer to begin the process, and said at the time: “You need to get young people out playing – the streets were where we learned our trade.

“One post was a lamppost, the other was a drainpipe or a jacket. There were no signs up to say no ball games.”

It was hoped that more councils would follow but in many cases, the signs have remained in place.

Marguerite Hunter Blair, CEO of Play Scotland, said planning legislation introduced in July has sparked new play strategies and a shift towards removing obstacles to children’s playtime.

“There’s a recognition that there’s no legal backing to these signs, however, they create a culture of children not being allowed to play or be visible in public and contribute to this culture of sedentary behaviour.

“Parents don’t want their children to get into trouble, so they don’t encourage them to play ball games.

“While we do have to recognise that in some places the signs may be appropriate, in others, they are unnecessary and go against a lot of what councils are attempting to do to promote outdoor health and wellbeing.

“More positive signage to encourage play is needed, or no signage at all.”

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 includes a section requiring councils to produce a sufficiency of play audit in planning reports to ensure there is adequate access to play opportunities.

However, it’s thought changes to housing stock ownership and decades of ‘no ball games’ signs being in place has meant many councils have lost track of where the ‘no ball games’ signs might be.

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: “Fortunately we have relatively few ‘no ball game’ signs and, where we do, these tend to be formal places such as by the Kibble Palace Glasshouse in the Botanic Gardens.

“Our city should feel welcoming to everyone, including children, and not discourage healthy outdoor play. We want to take a common-sense approach and regularly facilitate traffic-free Streetplay events for younger people.

“If there are ‘no ball games’ signs situated elsewhere in the city which residents feel are not required, we’ll consider removing them.”

City of Edinburgh Council announced in March that it planned to give residents the chance to report any old ‘no ball games’ signs which are no longer regarded as necessary. A spokesperson said at the time: “We know that there are a number of 'no ball games’ signs that have been up in open spaces for some time.

“Some may no longer be required or there may be other options for how the areas are used.”

Elsewhere, Falkirk Council says signs are under review: “We do not want to deter children from playing outdoors and have removed a number of these signs from council land in the past,” said a spokesperson.

“However, there may still be some of this historical signage but we do keep this under review.”

Meanwhile, Fife Council’s spokesperson said: “Fife's position is that it differs from community to community and we respond directly to their wishes on this issue. Where signs are wanted, we keep them up and where not we take them down.

“There is no Fife wide programme to erect new or remove old.”