Residents in Belmont go to the polls in a council by-election tomorrow, where Tory candidate Neil ‘Father Jack’ Garratt is expected to win. One factor could be the growing concerns over road safety around a new secondary school.
Our Sutton correspondent, BERTIE WORCESTER-PARK, reports
Residents and councillors in Belmont are increasingly worried after a new Harris Academy secondary school has opened in their neighbourhood without the required road safety measures being put in place.
When planning was granted for the six-form-entry Harris Academy last summer, much was made at the planning meeting of the council’s and the school’s “commitment” to road safety issues.
But nearly two months into the school year, and Sutton Council has failed to implement conditions imposed by the planning committee and its own planning department, leading to accusations that the planning process was a sham and that the safety of the borough’s school children is a low priority for the LibDem-run administration.
More sinister is the fact that important transport and travel plan documents that were part of the original application for the temporary school building have mysteriously disappeared from the council’s planning portal.
The school’s permanent buildings are being constructed at a cost of £40million on the site of the old Sutton Hospital, off Cotswold Road, as part of the London Cancer Hub scheme in which Ruth Dombey, the LibDem council leader, and the council’s erstwhile chief exec, Niall Bolger, have invested so much effort and credibility, as well as the public’s money.
Due to some council dithering and delay over the choice of site, nearly 200 11-year-olds started their secondary school lives last month in temporary accommodation, Cumbrian House.
A council planning officer has claimed that the transport statement and travel plan were not part of the original application for the temporary school.
But research by Inside Sutton shows this to be untrue.
Sutton Council has recently updated its planning portal and is removing planning documents after permission is decided, using new GDPR data rules as its excuse.
However, Inside Sutton accessed the council’s old planning portal to conduct a cross-check of the documents, and found the otherwise mysteriously missing transport statement.
It’s this report that proves the council has failed to carry out the safety precaution works that it said it would.
The travel plan in the original application, as well as the approved conditional travel plan for the first year of opening, states that there were a number of highway safety measures proposed for the new school site.
Here is a screengrab of the page in the mysteriously missing transport report:
Planning permission was granted in 2017. The school has been open for six weeks, yet none of these safety measures – supposed to be conducted “prior to the school opening” – have been implemented.
A Puffin crossing is a “smart” crossing that can sense when people are crossing and adjust the phasing of the lights accordingly, and is regarded as safer than the existing Pelican crossing.
The promised tactile paving is nowhere to be seen, and a larger traffic island on the dangerous junction, which will allow up to 12 students to cross with more safety, has not been built. The existing island can barely accommodate two children.
There was an additional proposal in the travel plan, visible in a diagram, to install a zebra crossing within the school grounds, near the busy entrance on to Cotswold Road. This has not happened.
In addition, the council has erected no signs along the busy Cotswold Road area near the school entrance to warn motorists that a school even exists in the area.
A cycling plan that forms part of the planning conditions has been acknowledged as difficult to implement as the local roads are not “cycle friendly”, while even with just one year group attending the school, bus capacity is already proving a problem with children arriving late for school. Transport for London had predicted that no extra capacity on local buses would be required in the first year.
The narrow pavements that lead to the school remain unswept and uncut bushes intrude on to the pavement. There have been reports of children being forced on to the road to avoid these obstructions.
Sutton Council has also been slow to progress work on upgrading the dangerous junction where the under-construction main school meets Brighton Road, Chiltern Road and Cotswold Road.
To improve road safety, allotment holders on adjacent unused land have offered the northern tip of the allotments be used to reconfigure the junction to make it safer. The council has failed to make use of this offer.
It’s worth examining in detail the missing planning statement that formed part of the original application for the temporary school.
In assessing the dangerous junctions, Sutton Council and its consultant, WSP, chose only to include accident data from 2013-2016, where it said there were five recorded accidents of “slight” severity. However, the appendices actually show another two serious accidents which were omitted from the narrative, and which occurred closer to the school than two ranked as “slight”.
One resident told Inside Sutton that they believed that the serious accidents were deliberately omitted to downplay the dangerous nature of the interconnecting roads around the area and assist in pushing through the planning permission for the school.
“Everyone focuses on the difficult Brighton Road junction, but that’s lower speed. At the other end of Cotswold Road, at the crossroads with Downs Road, cars come flying into Belmont from the open roads to the south, often travelling at 60mph,” the resident said.
“Ignoring the danger of these junctions and pretending accidents didn’t happen, just to make the roads look safe enough for a school, is beyond belief.”
Just as worrying is the commitment in Sutton Council’s own commissioned report, that says of the proposed improvements to road safety:
Pedestrian crossing improvements have been conditioned as part of the planning approval for the new school, and are required to be implemented prior to occupation (under proposed Condition 5). It is now proposed that these improvements will be implemented prior to the occupation of the temporary school.
This amounts to nothing less than clear evidence that Sutton Council has ignored its own planning conditions.
The planning conditions are supposed to be rigorously enforced by… Sutton Council. There appears to be no rush to take any action.
Harris Academy had a tough first fortnight with local traffic, not assisted by larger than expected numbers of parents dropping off children.
A count of cars with children coming into school during the second week of opening, conducted by local residents and councillors, showed more than three times the predicted level of traffic. This suggests again that the council planners may have deliberately downplayed the true volumes of traffic, or that few parents have bought in to the notion of “sustainable” travel.
And, of course, each new school year through to 2022 will see a further 195 children added to the school roll, and potentially an additional 195 doting parents using their cars for the twice daily school runs.
Tim Crowley, pictured left, the leader of Sutton Council’s opposition Conservative group, said: “I am wondering if the denial about the travel and transport proposals being part of the original application is a means to allow the council to claim it hadn’t enough time to do the required road safety work.
“This clearly isn’t the case. The proposals have been known about since the temporary school application was submitted in August 2017. They had a full year to make plans.”
There had previously been a proposal to site the school elsewhere in the borough, on a larger, some suggest more suitable, location in Sutton North ward, where one of the councillors is… council leader Ruth Dombey.
Crowley said, “The LibDem administration forced this school on Belmont to avoid building on the bigger, better site that just happened to be in the ward of the leader of the council.
“I’m pleased that most residents have come to accept the new school, and they and councillors alike want to work closely with stakeholders to help make it a vital and thriving part of our community. But when the council wantonly ignores planning proposals and conditions in reports it commissioned itself, I worry about their commitment to keeping our children safe.”
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