Chisenhale School Street
This is a summary of the conversations and fight to save the school street around Chisenhale Primary School in Bow.
What are school streets?
A school street is a set of measures around a school which encourage parents to walk and cycle to the school and discourage parents from driving their cars to the school. The main aims of school streets are to encourage parents to shift their mode of transport. Secondary aims are to reduce air pollution around a school and reduce the risk of road accidents. This wide range of aims mean a wide range of possible measures which can be implemented.
In the previous term, Labour introduced a set of school street schemes in the borough. They aimed to progressively decrease air pollution in Tower Hamlets, especially around schools because children in the borough are among the worst affected in the country by poor air pollution.
Some examples of what was implemented in Tower Hamlets by Labour are as follows:
- Closure of the road for a short time at school drop off and pick times enforced by cameras
- Widening pavements
- Permanent physical closure of the road with some sort of street infrastructure like bollards or planters
- Traffic speed reduction measures like speed humps, continuous pavements etc.
- Installing more bike parking around schools
School streets, as well as many changes to traffic infrastructure are usually implemented under the legal construction of an experimental traffic order, to allow a period of review and consultation before the final scheme is made permanent. Chisenhale school street was no exception.
What was installed at Chisenhale?
At Chisenhale, a scheme was installed in March 2021 which included the following features:
- Timed closure of the corner of Vivian and Zealand roads with Chisenhale Road
- A permanent physical road closure of both carriageways on Chisenhale Road to allow for a play space to be used by the school as a temporary playground during the period when covid restrictions meant that their existing playground space was not big enough.
- Closure of one carriageway on Vivian Road
- A two-way cycle path along Chisenhale Road
The Experimental Traffic Order can be viewed at this link for further details: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/notice/3780830
When I first learned of the scheme around Chisenhale School I thought this was a great initiative by the council. Green Party London Mayor candidate Sian Berry came to visit the location during her election campaign in April 2021 and the local Green Party featured the scheme in a leaflet in multiple leaflets which were delivered to residents in the area.
Parents, children and teachers at the school report significant benefits arising from the scheme:
- The use of the play space was especially important during the covid restriction period;
- Chisenhale Gallery which is opposite the school was able to use the play space for art events involving the local community;
- The combination of the ‘stick’ of the camera enforced closures and ‘carrot’ of emphasis on walking and cycling has meant parents are much more likely to walk or cycle with their children to the school rather than drive;
- The play space and prevention of driving near the school has created an extremely safe and welcoming environment for parents to drop their children off at the school, leading to better connections between parents.
However, I quickly learned that the situation was not as simple as we had assumed. While door-knocking in the Chisenhale Ladder, some residents raised some issues with me, for example:
- Lack of consultation prior to installation;
- Concern about the visual impact of the site;
- Concerns about how the scheme was funded;
- A sense that the scheme had been imposed on the area in a top-down way by the council;
- A sense that the scheme had been thought up by an ideological group of middle-class parents who were not representative of the local community.
To the contrary, when I raised these claims with the school and head of the PTA, he told me the following:
- The scheme was initiated by the council as part of their school streets scheme. Council officers conducted a standard consultation process which sought feedback from residents of the surrounding streets and parents;
- In addition to the council’s consultation process, the PTA and other parents conducted door-knocking in the Chisenhale Ladder to raise awareness and get feedback from residents;
- Funding from the scheme came entirely from the council and TfL grant, and no money was raised by the school as insinuated by some neighbours;
- The visual impact of the closure was so great because the play space needed to have very high barriers to give the children protection while using it as a playground;
- The general temporary nature of the physical closure was because the scheme was still under an experimental traffic order to allow for a permanent design to be designed and agreed on by the local community.
While door-knocking, I was struck by the strength of feeling among residents who were opposed to the scheme and was keen to understand what they might be willing to accept for the area, bearing in mind the significant benefits that the scheme has for the children at the school. It seemed that the majority of residents understood the benefits and would be happy to meet with parents to discuss potential alternatives. Their concerns seemed to boil down to the perceived priority given to parents over neighbours in the development process for the scheme.
Another concern was that people on both sides of the argument seemed to think that the local councillors at the time, Val Whitehead and Asma Begum, were supportive of the other side. It seemed that the councillors had both withdrawn from the discussion and were not willing to engage with either side to help resolve the conflict. This struck me as a big missed opportunity.
Following the election on 5 May 2022, the Aspire Party gained majority control of the council and their leader Lutfur Rahman became the directly elected Mayor. A key part of the Aspire manifesto was the promise to ‘reopen the roads’ closed by Labour in the previous term.
This promise was widely interpreted to mean reversing the Liveable Streets low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) schemes implemented by Labour. This might sound dramatic but in reality the measures implemented by Labour were piecemeal and generally disappointing compared to the bold plans promised in their 2018 manifesto.
Lack of LTN implementation by Labour
The reasons LTNs were not widely implemented across the borough by John Biggs’s Labour administration could be a topic of another blog post, but in a nutshell: they were spooked by the strength of opposition and the scale and complexity of the task they had undertaken. This combination of factors led to both pro and anti LTN groups feeling betrayed. The upshot was the election of Aspire, but also the Green Party becoming the third party by vote share in Tower Hamlets, ahead of the Lib Dems and Tories.
My election in the election in May was thanks in large part to this combination of factors. Part of the electorate was frustrated by the plans to implement low traffic measures; another large part in Bow West were frustrated by the fact that they had NOT been implemented and did not trust Labour to act decisively enough.
It was not clear, therefore, whether Aspire’s manifesto pledge applied to school streets. For the first 6 months of the Aspire administration, the school streets appeared to be safe from the plans and consultations initiated by Aspire to remove other low traffic measures.
Therefore, for all these reasons, when I was told that the Chisenhale school street was going to be removed with 4 days’ notice in mid October, I was particularly shocked.
Attempted removal and protests
When word got round that the school street was going to be removed, Chisenhale parents and pupils rallied together and decided to act. Twice, they successfully stopped council contractors from removing the infrastructure by peacefully sitting on barriers and standing in the play area.
Their activities garnered nation-wide press attention:
ITV News (no link)
The Mayor is forced to reconsider
Because removal of the barriers was prevented, the Mayor was forced to come up with another plan. A community meeting was held including parents, neighbours, council officers and a representative from the Mayor’s office.
Despite the earlier controversy, residents representatives were supportive of the retention of the school street but wanted an alternative to the ‘ugly’ barriers around the play space.
The representative from the Mayor’s office was adamant that the new administration’s manifesto did justify the removal of the school street, so no middle ground was reached.
The current status is that the barriers will remain until the Mayor has decided what the future of the space will be.
Council meeting 16 November and Sadiq Khan’s comments
On 16 November, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan weighed in to the argument in the Evening Standard. He called on Lutfur Rahman to retain the school street and highlighted the many benefits for children. Evening Standard article: Sadiq Khan urges Tower Hamlets leader to save ‘school street’ scheme
In the week when the contractors were initially instructed to remove the play space, Sadiq Khan announced nearly £70 million per year for London councils to implement school streets. The irony of this situation was lost on no one.
Also on 16 November, in a meeting of the Full Council, Labour brought a motion for debate calling for the reinstatement of the school street. I was pleased to be able to contribute to the debate, however was concerned that this intervention may make it harder politically for Lutfur to change his mind.
A summary of my contribution is as follows:
I called on the Mayor to take this opportunity to reconsider his decision for the following reasons:
- Solid agreement has now been reached by all the key stakeholders – the community want the school street to stay.
- We are missing out on important funding announced recently by the Mayor of London to fund school streets.
- Most importantly, the Mayor’s mandate is not clear enough to justify the effects on children of removing the school street. The children who will be affected by its removal did not and could not vote for the Mayor. If he claims it is justified, it risks looking like he is prioritising a political win for his supporters over the health and safety of children.
It is currently unclear how this situation will be resolved but I will update this post as information becomes available.