Huw Merriman spoke in the debate on Road Safety around Schools in a Westminster Hall Debate. This follows support for campaigns for speed restrictions near Vinehall School, Robertsbridge, and a puffin crossing installation outside Punnetts Town Primary School, Heathfield.
View the speech here: https://goo.gl/ojPuaT and read the speech below:
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Evans. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for initiating it and for the way he spoke. He set out some appalling reasons why this matter is important, and why it is important for the Government to take more action—to assess what they can do to improve road safety around schools and give a lead to local authorities. The local authority aspect of the matter is what I want to talk about.
It would be wrong of me not to mention my heartfelt sympathy for the family of Bobby Colleran, who are seated behind me, in the Public Gallery. Any parent will be aware of how horrifying it is to think about one of their children no longer being with them. It is unimaginable, and I can only pay tribute to the Colleran family for the way they put their energies and focus into making things better for other parents, and for their dignity. They are lucky to have the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby as their MP, campaigning on their behalf.
I was moved to attend the debate because I serve a rural constituency of 200 square miles with many small primary schools. Naturally, they are on roads, and as those roads have got busier, the safety situation has got worse. For example, Punnetts Town Community Primary School, a few miles from where I live, is on a busy road, on the left-hand side as one drives through. On the right-hand side are the car park, sports facilities and other amenities the children go to, such as forest school. To get from drop-off, or to use the amenities during the day, which is good for their health and fitness, the children have to cross a busy road. There is no crossing, and there are no lights. There is nothing; the children just have to cross when it is safe to do so on a busy, straight road. It is not safe to do that.
My frustration, and the point on which I look to the Government to lead local authorities to do more, is about the fact that, while there is a 30 mph zone, which of course tends to be flouted, and a flashing sign indicating a speed limit of 30 mph as drivers come in, we are told by East Sussex County Council that it will cost £120,000 to deliver a puffin crossing. I have put some research together, and I could do that work a lot cheaper. The difficulty is that local authorities, perhaps with their procurement on a smaller, localised basis, cannot buy equipment at as good a cost as they could if all local authorities acted together to cram the prices down. There is also a tendency to say, “It will cost this amount,” and to decide that, therefore, it is a question of spending money the council does not have or doing nothing. Many of the costs in the project I have outlined would relate to moving some signage. The parents would be happy with the signage as it is, if they could get the puffin crossing. We tend to go to the platinum standard, whereas the parents would find the gold standard absolutely adequate.
Another difficulty is that there is no longer a lollipop lady, because she decided it was not safe enough. My idea was to monetise 10 years’ worth of lollipop salaries and put them towards the cost of the puffin crossing. Then we would not need the lollipop lady. However, that type of thinking does not seem to work in local authorities. I recognise that the Government do not control the issue, which is devolved to local authorities—we want local authorities to keep making those decisions—but there must be a better way to lead or advise them on procurement. To some extent, there should also be a model in which they are told, “You have to provide this.” It should not be enough to say, “It is too expensive and we can’t afford it, so there will be nothing.” I therefore pay tribute to one of the parents, Alice Conyers-Silverthorn, and the councillors, who have together rallied to try to make the change happen.
I want to champion those who go into schools to teach safety awareness, such as by helping with artwork to be displayed by the road, as happened in the village of Five Ashes. Susan King, a resident of Cross in Hand, goes into a school to give awards to pupils for their work. She also tries to encourage parents not to bring their children by car in the first place. I am afraid that parents’ parking often increases the dangers to their own children or, more often, their children’s fellow pupils.
The ideas behind the Bobby zone are superb, because they effectively ring-fence an area that is safe. However, that will not work in isolation, because the issue of where to park then arises. So I want every primary school in the country to have a walking bus. It should be a statutory requirement. Walking is good for health, and it would mean a school would have one central point where everyone would be dropped off and where it would be safer. Cars would then not congregate around the school gates. That should be built in.
I should like more children to walk and cycle. Doing that is a bit of a double-edged sword at the moment. It is not safe to walk and cycle, so everyone drives cars, but that is what leads to its not being safe in the first place. On 10 October, it is Walk to School Day, when all pupils are encouraged to walk to school. I do not know about when you were growing up, Mr Evans, but there was a cycle ride and a walk for me. I walked to school four times a day, because I went home for lunch. Understandably, parents are now more concerned about safety, but I would tell parents in my constituency to let their children go a little more—let them walk. If the Government can make changes that make walking safer, parents, in return, could let things go. When we consider such things as type 2 diabetes, there is more need than ever to get children walking and cycling, to be fit and well.
My final point is about police enforcement. I have written to the chief constable of Sussex police. When I knock on doors in villages, speeding tends to be the issue people raise more than anything, including Brexit. It is all a question of how they can keep their community and environment safe. Part of the issue is of course engineering, but another part is enforcement. A welcome 250 extra police officers are now coming to East Sussex, and I should like them to be allocated for at least part of their time to road enforcement, stopping those who speed, making examples of them and thus lessening the chance of its happening again.
The Minister takes great care and attention with this matter. He met a group of my constituents who came to talk about speeding on the A21, which is one of the busiest trunk roads and has a primary school on it. That is our only school with a 20 mph zone; but another one, Vinehall School, further down, does not have one. I should like more roads to be routed away from schools. If that means more housing to build the roads, it would fix two issues.
I am a member of the Transport Committee, and it is about to consider local roads. What I have heard in the debate about the Colleran family, and what they have been through, will inspire me to try to broaden the subject to include road safety around schools.