Wednesday 17 April 2013

Primary School Expansion Means More Traffic, Stupid.

In the last few years, countless primary schools have been sold off around the country, because a falling birth rate meant that they were surplus to requirements. The transport fall-out is coming home to roost.

In my part of London, we had a handful of primary schools close around 5 years ago. Some of the closures resulted in mergers and some closed completely. The "surplus" schools were sold off for housing developments which raised money for the council's capital programme (including some school improvements), but now there is a problem as the birth rate went up around about the same time the closures took place - a big "I told you so" from those who opposed the closures and "we were following government advice" from the local politicians.

The problem is even worse than that - not only do (and still do) local authorities sell of land (including schools), the NHS and other public bodies have been doing the same for a long time (because they are "told" to by government or they otherwise have to cut services) and locally, there are parts of our area with no local primary schools because the house-building has taken place in areas which were not previously densely populated or populated at all.

So, to solve the "problem", we now have "primary school expansion" which is also known as shoehorning more kids into existing sites. Locally, planning consent was granted for the first batch before Easter and will be operational for September - looks less like planning and more like a panicking to me! You just have to Google "primary school expansion" to find out that this is happening up and down the UK. 

There are lots of examples of this expansion programme, such as using some of Dundonald Park in Wimbledon, a school to be over 3 sites in Bristol and an expansion in Sevenoaks, despite traffic and parking concerns. This last one of course is relevant to this blog, but seems to be a re-occurring theme in my area and across the country.

Before I rant on, I would just like to take a step back to look at parent choice. This is the tenet of both the current and previous governments (coming in under Thatcher, continued by Major and then New Labour). The basic idea is that you are free to send the kids to whichever school you like. The good schools will be popular which means that poor schools will have to improve in order to compete - yep, free market economy played out on the education of our children. Mind you, Vincent Cable had a different view a few years' back!

We have all seen the news stories where people move into an area because of the schools, or they lie about where they live (little Johnny really does live with Aunt May next to the school), or they take legal action to get their child into a good school. This is all understandable as parents want the best for their children. I found an interesting article from a few years ago in the Guardian which suggests that choice creates social divide - read it for yourself. Of course, there are catchments for primary schools, but also lotteries are run on places and academies, free schools and faith schools will skew catchments even more.

School Run Fun
Let's play who can actually get their car into the classroom first!
My own view with my kids has been that they go to the local primary school. The other local school is a half-hour walk and so it would have ended up as a drive or a bus journey which would have been madness. 

When I do the school run, it is a 5 minute walk and then I carry on by bike to work! There are people in my street who drive their kids to the other local school and then carry on to work, so that is choice for you.

So, bringing the post back to transport. The short-termist political decisions taken nationally and locally over the last 25 years have basically created the illusion of choice, the free market economy applied to schools, short term planning for school places and the start of privatisation through the academy and free schools dogma. Sitting in all of this and not really reported or debated is the impact on how children travel to primary school. 

In my area of work, we have achieved some high modal shifts from private car to walking in the last 10 years (for primary school travel). In my experience, walking tends to be be the mode shifted to as opposed to cycling - there is a desire from children to be able to cycle, but parents are not happy about the safety on cycling on local roads which is understandable.

Some of the modal shift has been helped with infrastructure such as 20mph zones around schools making parents and children feel safer (subjective safety) - casualties have not (in general) significantly changed as in reality, they are (and have been for years) fairly low around schools anyway (feeling safe is far more important to achieve a modal shift). 

As funding for engineering works has dwindled over the last 5 years or so (and more so since the cuts), I have suggested that schools look away from the school gate for improvements - for example, a zebra crossing over a busy road half a mile from the school may be more helpful than one outside the school gate. Schools which have been been most successful have also taken on the challenge themselves and worked with pupils and parents to effect change, looking at a range of interventions and not always physical measures. In London, TfL has used the STAR system to give accreditation to schools most improving their smarter travel choices - I know locally, competition is high amongst the schools and pupils.
Not a nice place to walk and even less so for cycling. It will only
be getting worse as primary schools expand.

Of course, being able to walk or cycle to school in conditions which feel safe are important and so I am worried that the primary school expansion programme will undo a lot of hard work and indeed investment made over the last 10 years. 

A larger pupil contingent will not only see a proportional increase in children being driven to school, the expanded catchments will mean children coming in from further away and so more likely to be driven. Local authorities are finding funding for the expansions themselves, but very little funding (if any) is being provided to build walking and cycling infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of expansion. 

I have read a number of transport assessments for the first tranche of local expansions and amazingly, none of them are predicted to have any impact on local roads. The consultants preparing the TAs have undertaken parking surveys and they confirm that there is plenty of space within a 5 minute walk. Seriously? No, what is going to happen is many of those driving will cruise around to get a space near the school, or park on restrictions, or junctions or other stupid places and make the experience even worse for those already walking and just forget about cycling.

The TAs also suggest that walking routes are well-established and available for use (having footways along a street seems to be sufficient) with no mention of getting the kids across the roads and junctions. I have yet to read any commentary on cycling provision - the comments are limited to pointing out the lack of cycling provision and therefore the expansion programme assumes that because none is there, no new provision is required.

School run congestion - it will only get worse
I realise that this is more complex than I have presented in this blog, but we have reached this point because of decades of political "leadership" which has only ever looked to the short term and transport to primary schools has been ignored at the highest level. What we are left with now is a situation where we don't have enough school places, schools have been flogged off and now we will end up with large-catchment primary schools and all of the problems this will bring. 

Perhaps it would have been better to accept that population changes over time and to plan long-term. We could have closed a few classrooms when numbers fell (and I just mean close the rooms and turn the heating down low!), so they were ready for population rises. Rather than spending all of out money on closing schools and building extensions, we could have invested in local walking and cycling networks. We would be left with smaller and local primary schools which could be reached by foot or cycle easily. 

But no, business as usual in the UK is to lurch from crises to crises, not worry beyond the next election and woe betide anyone who wants to cut parental choice or the free market economy. We could have had smaller and more local primary schools, all being good where local children could go to school locally - perhaps I am a communist!

See, although the transport impact is not mentioned, who was asleep in London to miss the change in birth rate?


  1. Our school is so full that we have had to tighten up our catchment. You may remember the schools problematic cul de sac location in a previous post. We have a travel plan, but all it seems to do is point out the obvious (there are pavements etc) like you say, and nothing about how they are going to improve.

    I think the 5 min car free zones around schools are going to have to come into force. We also have a huge problem were most of the schools being Academies, can take children from wherever they like. Making the traffic much worse. It also seems there is alot of money sloshing around for these expansions.

  2. Yes, there seems to be cash for the building, but nothing else. We had the next planning application come in today with no transport assessment - that is being worked on now! Looks like a done deal no matter what Highways say!

    5 minutes is abut 300 metres or so which is a potentially large area to restrict - if this means parking controls twice a day then those residents who want to park on the road will have to have a permit scheme which will then cost them to park.

    My view is to change the street environment to suit pedestrians and cyclists, but the politicians are not interested. Your example with the cul-de-sac is a tough one - the main road is a massive barrier.