TODDLERS have been robbed of their play area after mindless vandals burnt it to the ground causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Community leaders are now trying to salvage what is left of the £30,000 play area in Hackworth Park, Shildon, which was built for children aged up to five with funding from the Government initiative SureStart.

It is estimated that at least £20,000 worth of damage has been caused.

The climbing frame centre piece, which featured two slides and a swing, was completely destroyed along with a nearby hedge and the specialist rubber play surface.

Mick Waterson, Shildon Town Council clerk, said that everyone who had been involved in the creating of the park was left sickened by the attack, which happened last Saturday afternoon.

He said: "One of the things that amazes us is that it was done around 1.30pm on Saturday afternoon - a time when young children and their parents may have been using or on their way to use it.

"It is disgusting that someone would feel compelled to set fire to a significant piece of play equipment that's meant to be for young children.

"We have now had to close the area for safety reasons and now the children have nowhere to play."

Mr Waterson said town councillors believe that whoever started the fire must have had some sort of flammable liquid with them for it to have caused so much damage.

He said: "I have spoken to the experts who built the park and they say there is no way that sort of damage could have been caused by an accidental match."

Organisers at SureStart say that parent representatives who had been heavily involved in bringing the play area are devastated.

Julia Pope, programme manager for SureStart, said: "That park was the result of one year plus of work by young families in Shildon and now what is a valuable resource has been destroyed. We are devastated.''

Sergeant Steve Ball from Shildon police said: "This is appalling and we are doing everything we can to get to the bottom of it.

"We would urge anyone who saw anything or who can offer us any information to come forward.''

Witnesses can contact PC Simon Cowan at Shildon police station on 0845 60 60 365.