Seen and not heard?

20th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

Cries of disbelief have been heard this week following a court ruling banning playground activities in a residential zone due to noise pollution. Aaron Gray-Block investigates further.

This is a scene some Lauwe residents are intent upon achieving

It reads as a bad joke: court bans playground fun in residential area due to noise pollution complaints. But unlike a strange fable to warn naughty children, this story is actually true.

A group of disgruntled neighbours won a Kortrijk Court ruling on 10 January, banning the Flemish city of Menen from allowing playground activities organised by the youth centre Hoeve Delaere in the city district of Lauwe.

The court based its ruling on the fact the playground is situated in a residential area and banned all organised activities from taking place there during school holidays.

From 8pm onwards, no parties will be allowed either and the playground must be closed from 6pm each night.

The decision had been brewing since the summer of 2005 when the complainants lost an initial court battle that allowed the playground activities to temporarily proceed.   

Furious reactions

After the Kortrijk Court ruling was made public this week, Flemish Youth Minister Bert Anciaux angrily warned that "if you equate playground activities to neighbourhood nuisance that is the end of society".

Anciaux said he will pursue legislative change to remove child activities from strict noise pollution environmental laws. He also promised to offer legal support to youth groups if they need to appear before a court over future complaints.

The Socialist Spirit minister also told the Flemish Parliament that "unimaginable intolerance" is at the root of the problems in Lauwe.

"If the complainants only assume a stance from the perspective of their individual pleasure so that every project that focuses on children and youth becomes impossible or that these projects are set up in isolated locations, then we are at threat of entering a very dangerous situation," he said.

The judge's decision is final, or is it?

However, Menen Mayor Gilbert Bossuyt is not about to give up the fight: "The playground activity is positive for the city. That way we can supervise the youth".

Menen Youth Alderman Karl Debuck said the city council will appeal against the Kortrijjk court's ruling in the Ghent Appeals Court.

Taking up the cause, children's rights commissioner Ankie Vandekerckhove said: "The ruling from this judge means children don't belong in a residential neighbourhood, but are forced to remote terrains. There is greater respect needed for youths in our society."

A Menen city council youth public servant even suggested whether society should considering "abolishing children".

And the Flemish family union, Gezinsbond, said it was alarmed by increasing complaints from irritated neighbours about noise from children and urged adults to have greater understanding.

In the meantime, it may take up to a year before the Menen City Council's appeal is heard. However, the city will enter into negotiations next week with residents, who are not opposed to a re-opening of the playground if several conditions are met.

The main conditions are that no youth are allowed to loiter around the youth centre outside opening hours and that a limit is imposed on the number of children who can use the centre on a given day.
Legal or not?

A spokesman for federal Spatial Planning Minister Dirk Van Mechelen said the Kortrijk ruling will not lead to legislative change.

"The ruling of the Kortrijk judge to close the playground in Lauwe 'because such activities are not allowed in a residential area' is the result of a very individual interpretation of a royal decree in 1972," the spokesman said.

"We do not need to tinker with our legislation. This states already that playgrounds belong in residential zones."
The city of Menen's lawyer, Karel Decruyenaere, stressed the city's spatial plan indicated that the Lauwe area was zoned residential with a playground. That plan dated back to 1989 when none of the residents raised objections.

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