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Councillors should beware of treading in John Thane's footsteps

PUBLISHED: 14:00 23 May 2007 | UPDATED: 14:32 07 September 2010

When David Cameron cycles to the Commons, the newspapers say that a car follows with the documents that he needs for his day at the office. You can bet he has parking for the day and a driver. Conservative Cllr Mike Greene wants to make sure that parents

When David Cameron cycles to the Commons, the newspapers say that a car follows with the documents that he needs for his day at the office. You can bet he has parking for the day and a driver. Conservative Cllr Mike Greene wants to make sure that parents can't legally leave their cars (even if electric or hybrid) for 15 minutes to ensure that young children get to school safely. The council isn't helping schools set up buses for the kids, but instead has parents chased around the roads of Camden by over-zealous parking people.

School parking vouchers have been reduced by 60 per cent over the past three years. Most parents are working hard to change habits. Many families now use a combination of walking, cycling, buses and tubes to get children to school. Some have banded together to create school bus schemes. By continuing to attack the school run Cllr Greene has taken on the battle cry from defeated Labour councillor John Thane. They want to ensure that kids always walk, cycle and go by bus to school. Laudable, but not always possible.

When you have three children at different schools, walking may be possible on a sunny day, but when it's pouring with rain, there's a cello to bring and the baby in a pushchair this just is not realistic. In addition, the policy reeks of sexism. The implication is that these people are 'only non-working mums anyway.' Not only is this patently untrue, but the clear implication - that non-working mums don't bother to vote and their time is somehow less valuable is deeply offensive. Not a great theme for politicians to adopt.

John Thane was resoundingly defeated in the last election. Why did Labour lose control of Camden for the first time in 30 years? Many ascribed the loss to aggressive parking policies, with school run parents instrumental in voting out councillors in areas like Belsize Park and Highgate. With small margins in some wards it doesn't take many beleaguered parents to tip the balance. Those mums (and dads) do vote after all.

The old council's policy has failed, with parents dodging the ticket wardens congestion at school run time is as bad as ever and children's safety at the school gates at risk. Regular stories circulate about a child hit by a car trying to avoid a parking ticket. These stories may be true or they may be urban myths. One thing is clear, parents are afraid that the current system isn't working, because the traffic wardens are so aggressive that people are driving less carefully in order to avoid those tickets. As a result, all children are less safe than before, especially those biking and walking.

We need real solutions that go to the root of the problems. Why should a school be best-placed to sort out inter-school bus routes, safety and shuttle bus insurance, particularly when there are several schools involved? Despite what some are saying, schools are making enormous efforts to satisfy the numerous and ongoing tasks and requirements set out by the council. They are, in fact, spending many thousands each year on endless rounds of often academic travel planning exercises. Not to mention wasting teaching time.

What's wrong with schools funding schemes that Camden co-ordinates and puts into place? What about the proposed scratch card system which allows parents to purchase cards for a limited number of journeys? This allows more flexibility for parents, while creating an income stream for the council that doesn't have parents and ticket wardens battling in the streets. Car pooling is encouraged in theory, but in practise the current rules make it very difficult.

Yes, most schools have at least one parent who is the poster person for bad will, tearing up some small alleyway in Belsize Park in their Porsche Cayenne, creating danger and anxiety, misusing their school permit and driving too fast because they are habitually late. However, they are the exception and designing a whole policy around this stereotype is absurd.

Unsurprisingly, most parents are not thrilled with the school run either, it takes time, the traffic is already terrible, with lots of single commuters already on the roads, and you increasingly have to dodge the men and women in green, who are liberally passing out tickets to anyone who dares to stay a minute over the allotted time.

Parents have been working to solve the problems, not least by setting up school bus schemes at several area schools. Parents want to know why Mike Greene doesn't take the notion of buses seriously. Parents are only trying to educate kids and get to the office at an acceptable hour. No one is telling the single commuter in their car to move closer too the office. Nor are they deterring anyone from driving a short distance to the high street to pick up a newspaper. After all, there is ample pay-and-display in the high street but not outside schools.

Cllr Greene has emphasised the recent increase in revenues from tickets. How many of them were given to overstressed parents who were one minute over their time, trying to get several kids in a car-share out of school and into a car safely? Turning local residents into criminals doesn't seem the most expedient political strategy.

Working parents vote, especially when there are motivating issues. Just like John Thane, councillors will find that this is a motivating issue for many who may not have time to join their local residents' associations or write to the local paper. They are too busy raising their families and working all hours so they can afford escalating house prices to live in Camden. But they do usually make it to the polling station.

So which councillors are going to stand in front of the bus? 'Making do' which has been suggested by some councillors in the past, does not resolve the fundamental issues, or the unfairness in letting single commuters get to work unmolested, but penalising working families.

The Lib Dems seem to be making the right noises and seem willing to listen. Time will tell whether they have the stomach to back serious solutions like school buses, the sale of scratch cards, special dispensations for car-pooling families and even those with children at multiple schools.

At the last election voters told Camden it wanted 'small' government when it comes to parking. They've already sent old Labour on their way. What next?

If councillors continue to walk in John Thane's footsteps, they may well find out in which direction they lead ...

Submitted by

Sofia Cohen, Ashley Dartnell

Trea Hoving & Susan Schoenfel

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