Criticism over short notice for path closure between school and hospital building

The pathway which runs past Hampstead Hill School and the Royal Free Charity's new Pears Building. P

The pathway which runs past Hampstead Hill School and the Royal Free Charity's new Pears Building. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Frantic discussions were held to ensure the fire escape route from a Hampstead school remains accessible after it emerged at the last minute that a path would be blocked because of work on a flagship new Royal Free Hospital building.

Hampstead Hill School, in Pond Street, found out on Thursday, July 30 that the path sandwiched between itself and the new Pears Building, would be shut from Monday August 3 for six weeks. Construction firm Willmott Dixon has permission from Camden Council to close it so that lorries and trucks serving the building site can use it as an access road.

The alley forms part of the evacuation route in case of a fire for the school, which is open over the summer.

Willmott Dixon and the Royal Free Charity did not contact the school or the construction working group (CWG) set up to monitor the project and the work was not mentioned at a CWG meeting a week earlier, which was not attended by anyone from Willmott Dixon.

It meant discussions took place in the remaining working day over the fire escape route. The path closure has been shortened to between 7.30am and 4pm on weekdays, and a solution to the school’s fire escape problem has since been found.

In an email to the group, member and Hampstead Town councillor Maria Higson shared her “dismay” over the “complete lack of transparency” from the Royal Free Charity and construction firm Willmott Dixon.

In a response to the group, CWG chair Rob Leak, who is also the chair of the Royal Free Hospital’s property service group, noted the “understandable annoyance” and acknowledged the episode had damaged the goodwill between the community, the construction firm and the charity.

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The interim chief executive of the Royal Free Charity Rob Scarth went on to contact CWG members and apologise for the lack of notice, and said he had raised the issue with “senior management” at Willmott Dixon. The firm’s senior operations manager, Matt Adams, is due to attend a special meeting of the working group in the coming weeks - but the group is yet to get an apology from the company.

Cllr Higson told the Ham&High she was disappointed at the poor consultation from Willmott Dixon, and the Royal Free Charity.

She said: “It’s frustrating that proper engagement wasn’t done with residents or with the school, when closing the path impacts not only the community but also the fire safety of pupils.

“The CWG was set up to alleviate earlier issues, and yet this wasn’t raised in the meeting just the week before. We need early communication of potential issues so that mitigation can be put in place - the CWG discussed getting one week’s notice, which I believe should be extended, but in this case we got just three days.”

She added: “Throughout construction school representatives, local councillors and residents have attended meetings to avoid issues, but these aren’t useful if the right information isn’t provided, as in this case.”

A spokesperson for the Royal Free Charity said it would work with Willmott Dixon to try to give sufficient notice for any future work that affects the surrounding area. The path is due to be closed again before the project is completed, for Camden Council to carry out work on it.

They said: “The charity was told the date of this path closure at very short notice on Thursday 30 July, and immediately informed the construction working group (CWG) of local residents and amenity group representatives.

“We value our relationship with our local residents and have worked closely with the CWG over the past two years to ensure that people are aware in advance of planned works. We had previously informed them that path closures would be necessary from time to time and planned to give reasonable notice.”

Willmott Dixon did not respond to requests for comment.