24th November 2014: Traffic Controls (Schools)

24th November 2014: Traffic Controls (Schools)

Traffic Controls (Schools)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I know that, under the rules of the House, I could entertain Back Benchers and Front Benchers for the next two hours-plus, but I do not intend to do so.

I want to talk about parking and traffic outside schools. I invite the House briefly to imagine the scene at 8.45 in the morning outside a school. Parents and adults are walking to school with their children, chatting, checking that everything is in order and waving their charges off as they walk through the school gates. If there are any roads to be crossed, it is usually the local authority that ensures that there are school crossing patrols to see children and adults across safely. Once children are inside the school, every parent rightly expects that the school and the teachers will take care of those in their charge. They want the environment to be safe and they want to be sure that nobody tolerates bullying and that not a single child is put in a dangerous situation.

A significant number of parents walk to school. Some do so because they think it is the right thing to do or because they live nearby. A number of parents drive to school. Some have to do so because it is on their way to work or because they have several children in several schools. Others do so by choice. There is a valid argument that we ought to discourage some of those who drive to school by choice from doing so. Of those who come by car, a large number park nearby, taking care that no obstruction is caused, and walk the last few yards to the school gates. So far, so good. If that was what happened outside every school gate, I would not have called for an Adjournment debate.

At every school gate that I have come across in all my years, there is a small number of parents who insist on parking on double yellow lines, on pavements and in front of driveways, who block exits and who cause dangerous obstructions. So far, I have talked only about the morning. The situation is worse in the afternoon, when parents might arrive early and have to wait for their children. Those parents create a danger to themselves, to their own children and to other children.

I cannot be the only politician who has heard some choice language over the years in my discourse with voters. However, I have to confess that I have never come across language quite as fruity, aggressive and in your face as when a local councillor and I decided, about six months ago, that the only way we could deal with this issue in some of our schools was to go out and ask the parents to move on. I do not name the schools deliberately, because doing so would give the impression that they were unusual. Birmingham has about 475 schools. I know that this problem is spread across the city and does not just affect Birmingham. It just happens to be worse at some schools than at others.

What happened was extraordinary. Outside one school, a road crossing patrol lady in her early 70s was run over by a driver deliberately because they were so aggressive. Such things simply cannot go on. When we went out at one local school, a parent was driving on the pavement. I stood in front of the car and said, “I don’t think you should be doing that.” The man wound the window down and said, “Are you that Mrs Stuart or that Miss Badley?”, because the councillor who came out with me was Caroline Badley. I said, “I’m that Mrs Stuart and I’m not moving until you move.” The string of expletives that came out of the car was really quite extraordinary. The key thing is that such people are a minority, but that minority is causing a simple problem. If we just use the current legislation, I do not think that we will change the behaviour.

On some occasions when we have gone out, we have asked the local traffic enforcement officers to go out with us. That has not quite worked because the powers on when it is appropriate and right to issue tickets are fairly unclear. On other occasions, we have asked the schools to help us with the children coming out. The children will stand out on the pavements with placards, telling the drivers that their behaviour is simply not appropriate. That works, but only for short periods. We think we have just cracked the problem and then, come September, a new cohort of parents comes in and the problem starts all over again.

There is a real question over whose problem it is. The schools have an interest in their pupils getting to school safely. However, I do not want to make teachers and governors into part-time traffic marshals. They have a role to play, but they must be part of something much wider. One local primary school made sure when it had rebuilding work done that its staff had enough parking spaces, so that the school was not adding to the traffic problem. However, the head teacher told me that when she went out with traffic cones, the parents simply ignored her. She, too, heard a lot of foul language. It is not enough for just the schools to act.

The local authorities have an interest. Parking offences are civil offences and local authorities have the power to enforce them. They are also responsible for providing a safe environment for the travel-to-school journey. Some authorities have developed policies. I am sad to say that Birmingham has not. The last time Birmingham looked at wider issues such as parking on pavements was when a certain Councillor Steve McCabe, who is now the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak and has been since 1997, was a local councillor there. The council could do more, but that would not be sufficient on its own.

Mature cities such as Birmingham have particular problems. Their schools tend to be in densely populated areas with very narrow roads. Again, that is not a sufficient explanation for the problem. Local authorities and transport agencies also have an interest because, certainly outside several of my local schools, the traffic chaos that is caused affects the bus routes—because the parents are double parking, the buses cannot get through.

All those people have an interest in the matter, but it is never sufficient for anybody to pull things together and decide what to do. I will not call for large-scale legislative changes because that is not the issue. However, we need to stop and think about a proper framework on how we can solve this problem on a long-term basis. Clause 38 of the Deregulation Bill, which is in Committee in the House of Lords, would prohibit the general use of CCTV for parking enforcement, with limited exceptions. That needs to be looked at seriously, because the use of CCTV for parking enforcement outside schools during periods when there is a significant problem ought to be taken up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who has Front-Bench responsibilities for road safety, has done some useful work on what has happened to local authority budgets in respect of such enforcement. He has found that the Government have axed road safety grants by more than a third, which is having detrimental effects. Something like nine in 10 local authorities have cut their road safety budgets and a third of local authorities have cut road safety staff. To quote my hon. Friend, we have ended up with a rather “pickled policy”, which will not help schools or traffic, and will not help to make things better.

Could we work with police community support officers? I have asked those in my area to stand outside schools, and they have been supportive, wearing their uniform and waiting outside. To be honest, however, the only thing that will hit home for that small minority of parents who are simply not amenable to reasonable conversation is a ticket. Unless we give PCSOs the power, in limited circumstances, to issue tickets outside schools, we may have real difficulty. Community traffic officers also work outside schools, but they are over-cautious in their willingness to issue tickets.

In the light of the significant cuts already experienced—from what I am led to believe, after the next Budget they will be even worse—I accept that we may have fewer community police officers and traffic enforcement officers. Nevertheless, I have come across processes through which the police train laypeople to take evidence that can then be used either for warning letters or prosecutions. About 20 years ago kerb crawling was a real problem in two areas of Birmingham. Local community groups followed tightly drawn up protocols with the police, which allowed the police to use as evidence car registration numbers that had been noted down. We should be able to do something similar. I believe that some local authorities are already doing this, but perhaps parents outside schools and governors could agree a protocol for taking down the registration numbers of offending drivers. The police will then send those drivers a warning letter to say that their behaviour has been unacceptable. That must be a way forward.

Such a process means working with other agencies. Car insurance companies have an extraordinarily strong interest in greater road safety. We should encourage companies such as AXA Insurance, which claims that it wants to do more for road safety, to provide cones outside schools, or jackets for people who wait outside and say to people, “Move on, we are patrolling your pavements and we have some authority.” No single action will make progress, so we must bring together the means that we already have.

Given the fragmentation of our schools, the local authority is no longer the real authority that holds school families together; we are also dealing with academy chains. The Government need to send a clear message to say to schools, “You think that road safety outside schools is important, as do we. We will provide a framework and protocols that you can use to bring together traffic enforcement measures, police officers and outside agencies, so that we can help you to go outside the school gates and end the absolute mayhem that takes place at some schools.”

I live in Birmingham on the Hagley road. Jokingly, I sometimes say to parents that if they ever hear about an incidence of road rage by an elderly woman around 8.45 am on a weekday, it is probably when I try to turn off the Hagley road. There are nursery schools, and cars are parked on both sides—it is a main artery into the city and the junction is completely jammed and traffic cannot flow because of that parking. We know that that will happen for two half-hour spots in the day; it is not unexpected because we know that on every school day between 8.45 and 9 am, and at about 3.30 or 4 pm, there will be traffic jams. Unless we start to address that with protocols that allow those on the ground to challenge people who behave badly—indeed, a small number behave exceedingly badly and their effect is disproportionate —we will end up with serious accidents outside our schools, particularly as local authority cuts will mean fewer school crossing patrols. There will be fewer local authority activities to provide for road safety, and we as politicians need to address the issue with open eyes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this debate. Her colleague, the shadow road safety Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), is on the Opposition Benches to listen to her remarks as well as to what I have to say, and I suspect that we will have a lot of common ground on this matter because it affects constituencies up and down the country. I am pleased to speak about an issue that is vital for the safety of our schoolchildren—indeed, the hon. Lady is probably pushing at an open door in that regard. In rural areas such as the one I represent, we have the additional problem that many parents seem to get into bigger and bigger four-wheel drive vehicles, which makes it harder for people to see when manoeuvring. Perhaps it is a fact of modern life, but a lot of people seem to set off far too late to take their children to school and have to race there.

We are all too aware of how traffic tends to be more congested during school drop-off and pick-up periods because many of us use our vehicles to take our children to and from school. Schoolchildren are therefore more likely to be at risk from traffic during those periods, and it is a particular problem directly outside schools because some children make their way home on foot or walk to the nearest bus stop. The Government are keen to increase the number of children who walk to school—we have set a target of 55%—and good schemes such as walking buses or “park and stride” encourage people who perhaps live too far away from their school to walk the entire distance to walk for some of it. That is good news not only for reducing congestion outside schools, but also for improving general health and well-being. When I drive to York station on a Monday morning to come to London, it is obvious when it is half term because the traffic is so much better.

Let me mention some of the legal measures available to local authorities and schools, and the powers that local authorities have to address the problem. Local authorities can tackle congestion and protect vulnerable schoolchildren by applying traffic control measures such as “School Keep Clear” zig-zag markings outside school areas. Those areas can be either advisory or mandatory, and it is for the local authority to determine what is appropriate in particular circumstances. If it considers that an advisory approach will be effective, the local authority should apply the appropriate zig-zag crossing on the road outside the entrance of a school to indicate to drivers that stopping or parking is not permitted in the marked area. An advisory marking is unenforceable by the local authority because it is not prohibited in an order made by the council, and traffic signs are not required to indicate the advisory marking. The police can, however, give a driver a parking fine for causing an obstruction as a result of stopping or parking on a “School Keep Clear” road advisory marking. Advisory markings are only intended to act as a deterrent, although as we have heard, some drivers take a lot of deterring.

If a mandatory approach is considered more effective, the local authority will be required to make a “School Keep Clear” zig-zag marking a parking prohibition in an order, and it must also apply appropriate road markings and traffic signs. Local authorities that have taken over responsibility for parking enforcement from the police can enforce a mandatory “School Keep Clear” marking with a penalty charge notice. Current arrangements provide flexibility for local authorities to decide whether an advisory or mandatory approach is needed, and I believe that they are best placed to tackle traffic management in their area. Most school governing bodies that I know include one or two councillors, so it will be easy for them to feed back that concern.

Parking on the pavement near schools is common practice in some areas and can cause severe problems for parents with children in pushchairs, people in wheelchairs, or the visually impaired and blind. Pavement parking could also block the footway passage for schoolchildren, forcing them on to dangerous roads.

In London, parking on the footway is prohibited, but in some areas it is permitted to maintain easy traffic flow. It would be for the London local authority to decide parking arrangements for a local area, and that may include permitting pavement parking. In England outside London, parking on the pavement is not banned. However, local authorities have the power in legislation to implement a pavement parking prohibition in particularly problematic areas, such as outside schools.

Ms Gisela Stuart: The Minister is absolutely right about the legal framework, but the reality is that our local authorities’ financial means have been cut to the bone. If I go to my local authority and say that I want one of those traffic management orders, it will say, “We simply do not have the money.” In Birmingham, there are more than 475 schools and it simply does not have the means. We need other ways and issuing tickets is the simplest thing to do.

Mr Goodwill: I will come on to other ways that may be used to dissuade people from bad behaviour, but I am currently outlining the statutory tools available to local authorities in particular areas. Issuing tickets will create revenue, which may make the system self-financing. However, I must make it clear that we do not support any measures that could be seen as re-declaring the war on motorists that the previous Government seemed to be engaged in.

Since 2011, enforcing pavement parking in English areas outside London has been made easier by my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who was responsible for removing the requirement for councils to apply for individual traffic sign authorisations. Baroness Kramer wrote to English local authorities outside London this summer, reminding them of their existing powers to enforce pavement parking and encouraging them to do so.

Double parking outside schools when dropping off or picking up schoolchildren can obstruct the passage and flow of traffic, and may put schoolchildren at risk of being hit by a passing vehicle. Local authorities with parking enforcement powers can enforce double parking violations without the requirement for traffic signs, because double parking is prohibited in national legislation. Similarly, local authorities can give a penalty charge notice to drivers who block access to school grounds or nearby facilities as a result of parking their vehicle alongside a dropped footway outside the school area.

Yellow line restrictions near school areas can also be enforced by the local authority. In these circumstances, the police can only enforce if a vehicle is causing an obstruction as a result of parking on a yellow line, or if the local authority has not as yet taken over the responsibility of parking enforcement from the police. I suspect Birmingham is an authority that has taken over enforcement powers from the police, and I encourage all local authorities that have not yet done so to take on those powers. Local authorities have the power in legislation to make arrangements for the patrolling of places where children cross roads on their way to and from school. My Department works closely with intermediaries and partners who engage with children directly, such as teachers, out-of-school group leaders and parents, to communicate road safety messages. The Department provides them with free lesson plans, resources and activities that can all be found on the Department for Transport’s award-winning “THINK!” website. Moreover, the Department continues to work with local road safety officers and stakeholders, including the road safety charity Brake and in partnership with the RAC, to help them deliver road safety plans.

My Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government recently consulted on proposals to tackle over-zealous parking enforcement by local authorities. One proposal was to introduce a ban on the use of CCTV by local authorities for on-street parking enforcement. The Government received an overwhelming number of responses requesting that the use of CCTV by local authorities for traffic enforcement outside schools be exempted from the ban.

We recognise that the primary objective of any camera system for enforcement is to ensure the safe and efficient operation of public highways by deterring motorists from breaking traffic restrictions and detecting those that do. We also recognise that areas outside schools are more susceptible to traffic accidents if a robust system of enforcement is not in place. For that reason, we have listened to the views of the general public, and parents and teachers in particular, and have exempted from the ban the use of CCTV by local authorities for traffic enforcement outside schools. That could be in the form of either a fixed camera or a camera van to ensure that people who are parking illegally receive the appropriate sanctions. CCTV is necessary in these areas in particular, because it takes most drivers only 10 seconds to drop somebody off. Therefore, even if a parking warden or an officer of the council is there, it is not possible to ticket more than one car. With the use of cameras, enforcement can be done in a pretty severe way to get the message across to parents who park dangerously. It would be great to have the hon. Lady outside all the schools in Birmingham—I am sure similarly stern ladies could do the work—but the use of cameras is one way to ensure that people cannot get away with dropping people off.

Ms Stuart: I am glad to hear that. Can the Minister be more precise on where cameras will be located and on the enforcement process for evidence gathered from CCTV? Whose responsibility will it be: the local authority or the police?

Mr Goodwill: Where civil enforcement has been taken over by the council, as in the case of Birmingham, it would be up to the local authority, through its civil enforcement officers. If it was a particularly big or busy school it would be possible to install a camera outside the school to do that work, but other local authorities could use a van with a camera fitted to enable that to happen and to provide a deterrent when word gets around that people are being ticketed.

Unfortunately, no matter how strong a message is given to parents, either directly or through their children, not all parents understand the dangers of parking outside schools. If local authorities want to use cameras, we have allowed them to use them in specific locations: red routes in London, bus lanes and outside schools. I was keen to impress on my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government how important it is to make an exception for the situation outside schools. As hon. Members probably know, this has been taken forward as an amendment to clause 39 of the Deregulation Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. It will enable the power to be retained by local authorities and for there to be an exemption from the camera ban.

There is important work to be done by schools on information campaigns and sending notes home from school. I have heard of cases where vehicles and their registration numbers have been listed and circulated back to parents to try to encourage more responsible behaviour. I repeat that we absolutely understand the problem. We need to give local authorities the right powers, and retaining the use of cameras gives them those additional powers. As I have outlined, there are several ways local authorities can enforce parking restrictions outside schools, and I would encourage them to use those powers.

Ms Stuart: Given that the installation of CCTV outside schools can be an incredibly sensitive matter for some local populations, particularly in Birmingham, as we have seen, will a protocol be put in place and would consultation with local communities be undertaken first?

Mr Goodwill: There are certainly processes that local authorities would need to go through, although not in the case of vans. If there were several schools in an area where this was a problem, the use of a van fitted with camera equipment might be the best means of enforcement, and of course parents would never know when it might be parked outside their school.

Once again, I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to the House. It is a matter that concerns me as a parent—even if my children are now past school age—and one that affects every constituency in the country. She has identified a real problem that parents are worried about, and I hope I have reassured her that local authorities have the powers to do something about it, and I hope they will avail themselves of those powers where this is a particular issue. The last thing we want is children being deterred from walking to school or feeling unsafe because of the mêlée of cars outsides their school. We need to get people walking to school again, whether all the way from home or from a sensible parking place.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

The discussion is available here on the parliamentary website.

 

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