New thinking required if council is to solve school run issues

BY VICKY FOBEL OF STAG (Schools Travel Action Group) Why is the school run such a controversial issue, provoking such strong feelings? There are around 30 schools concentrated within one square mile of Hampstead, educating over 4,000 children from the age

BY VICKY FOBEL OF STAG (Schools Travel Action Group)

Why is the school run such a controversial issue, provoking such strong feelings? There are around 30 schools concentrated within one square mile of Hampstead, educating over 4,000 children from the age of two. This creates transport problems - and high levels of stress for residents and parents alike.

The question of how to solve the problem gets temperatures rising. There is no simple answer. Remember that parking restrictions were only introduced relatively recently, in the last decade or so, and the level of chaos they created was bordering on dangerous at school run time.

As a result, and with police support, Camden Council introduced the 15 minute parking dispensation for parents of junior and nursery school children, allowing parents to park safely on single yellow lines or in resident bays while dropping off and collecting children.

Prompted by concern about congestion, a decision was made to phase these permits out over five years. They are already below 40 per cent of their original level but there is no noticeable improvement in congestion and there is evidence that safety is being compromised.

Just to be clear, the school parking permits are only needed by the parents of young children. As soon as a child is old enough to make its way into or out of school alone, there is nothing to stop a parent pulling up and waiting while the child goes in or comes out. So taking away the permits only affects the youngest children while older children, who could use public transport more easily, continue to be driven.

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With negligible improvement in public transport, parents argue that the policy won't solve congestion and will leave young children "high and dry" without a safe means of getting to school.

Buses are already over-crowded and often won't let on parents with children in buggies. The underground does not criss-cross north London and involves all sorts of practical problems, not least the steps and failing lifts. Faced with a lack of practical alternatives, parents are being forced to resort to circling and parking illegally, over drives and on double yellow lines, so as to be as close as possible to the schools to avoid the parking attendants who roam the streets.

At the same time parents who drive their children to and from school have been demonised. Mothers are stereotyped as gym-bunnies who drive 4x4s. In reality, the area has seen a dramatic growth in the number of electric and hybrid cars, many parents walk and take public transport when they can and parents do believe in reducing traffic and thereby pollution.

Misunderstandings colour the handling of this issue. There has been a failure to recognise that the fundamental structural problems, particularly the high density of schools in a small area, lack of schooling options in surrounding areas and poor transport alternatives. None of these will go away simply by taking permits away.

Reducing permits has a role to play but only when parents have realistic choices. If they do not have alternatives available that enable them to get their children to school safely and themselves onto work on time, they will simply find ways of continuing to drive.

So whose responsibility should it be to solve the problems? The council has looked to the schools to do it themselves. The argument runs that once permits go, transport alternatives will materialise. It is not clear what mechanism will make this happen, but the implication is that schools will somehow overcome the obstacles once their school numbers are under threat.

This fails to take into account the fact that schools in the area are heavily over-subscribed and with far fewer school places available outside NW3, parents have few options. So it is unlikely that schools will feel the pinch.

However, schools care about tackling congestion regardless of what happens on permits. They have done a lot, like spending huge amounts of time and money on school travel plans, in some cases setting up private school buses, introducing after school clubs and providing additional storage for bikes and scooters.

Unfortunately private-run school bus schemes are costly and present logistical problems, and only a few schools are large enough to overcome these obstacles alone.

The schemes that have got off the ground recently at smaller schools were rightly supported by Camden. If the council is genuine about wanting to solve the problems, rather than just paying lip service, they must take a far greater role in facilitating future schemes.

There has been an absence of open-minded thinking and willingness for all parties to work together rather than attack from opposing sides.

The issue has been dogged by prejudice, not least by the old council and if the new council wants effective and wide-reaching solutions it needs to be ambitious and proactive.

A group of parents set up Schools Travel Action Group, (STAG) with the purpose of finding practical ways of reducing the school run. It has maintained a dialogue with Camden Council and has suggested a radical scheme for paid-for permits to raise a ring-fenced fund for school buses and other alternatives, because cost is the biggest hurdle to getting these schemes off the ground.

The paid for permit has a number of benefits: it dis-incentivises driving and encourages car sharing, it provides a means of monitoring bad behaviour as illegal parkers can be refused further permits and it allows those with real need to drive, such as working mothers or parents with very young children. Most importantly, it funds the solutions through the people who drive so that there will be no cost to the public purse.

In mainland Europe radical transport schemes happen because local governments see their role as facilitators and work pro-actively to generate schemes. The time is right for some leadership and "blue-sky" thinking: schools and parents are ready and willing but need co-ordination from Camden.

The whole community will benefit from a political will to end the blame culture and to find real solutions. Let's hope the new Lib-Dem-Conservative alliance lives up to its promises and does not turn out to be the old council in new clothing!