Camden should stick to its guns

The attractions for parents of being free to choose the school they wish their child to attend are obvious, not least in the hope of advancing the child’s academic prospects. However, as their decision usually leads to the selection of a more distant school that can only be conveniently reached by car, regard must be paid to the wider social and environmental effects. Recognition of these largely explains why, four years ago, Camden, with all-party support, adopted its policy of aiming to discourage car use on the school run. State schools deliberately prioritise admission in favour of local children who can walk to them.

Implementation was staged over a five-year periodto give ample time for each year’s new parents to know of its intentions. The primary source of the problem now under review is that, in spite of repeated requests, many of these parents have chosen to disregard Camden’s decision.

It is outrageous that they now imply that they are locked into a position in which the location of their home in relation to the school of their choice has been imposed on them by some outside body and, incredibly, argue that the Council cannot reasonably continue to withdraw the concessionary parking permits unless it provides alternatives to their car use ‑ often from other Boroughs! It is salutary to note that such permits are not available for other more deserving groups in the population.

Camden is also being pressured to at least make an exception for ‘vulnerable’ nursery schoolchildren who cannot walk long distances and may be distressed by being obliged to share a car with other children and with an unfamiliar driver. But as most homes in the Borough have at least one nursery school within easy walking distance, that case cannot be reasonably justified to support a proposition that all these children should be able to go to school by car:

If not the car…
Although there is growing enthusiasm for school buses for older children, such an arrangement has distinct disadvantages. Bus use results in foregoing the regular ‘built-in’ daily exercise of walking or cycling – the most beneficial means for promoting children’s health. It also reduces opportunities for them to gain coping experience in the outside world when on their own or with friends and to take part in extra-curricular activities. In any case, it is important to realise both the near-impossibility of these buses matching the car’s convenience and the high costs ‑ and therefore subsidy implications ‑ of providing drivers and vehicles for a couple of hours on school days only.

The Review process leading to Camden’s decision must be informed by considering the wider public interest consequences of the car-based school run:

  • increased danger to other road users
  • the influence of this on whether other parents allow their children to walk or cycle
  • the effects on children’s quality of life and on their social and emotional development
  • public health issues, such as child obesity from a lack of daily exercise, and respiratory and heart diseases from air pollution
  • the adverse outcome for residents from the increase in traffic on the routes to and parking close to the schools
  • other environmental effects, especially the contribution of the avoidable use of fossil fuels to climate change
  • the disturbing delay in response times of the police, ambulance and fire brigade servicesduring school rush hours compared with the same hours during school holidays.

As part of its review, an undertaking was given that those responsible for these areas of public policy would be consulted. It will be fascinating to see the findings of this essential element of the process and how these are integrated into its decision. There are already strong grounds for concluding that Camden should not alter course now just at a time when its policy can be seen to be working.

Published in the Hampstead and Highgate Express 26 April 2007.

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