Spooky Westminster Council could be about to spring an unwanted Halloween surprise on the children and teachers of a primary school in Fitzrovia, if highway managers reopen a pedestrian and cycle street to motor traffic next month.
This trick or treat is described by the council as making the street a “cleaner, greener and safer environment”.
Riding House Street was originally closed to through motor traffic to enable construction work on a nearby building, and it remained shut for several years after work finished.
Then in September this year All Souls’ Primary School received a letter from Councillor James Spencer, cabinet member for city management, explaining that the Council wished to reopen the street.
Instead it would become part of Westminster’s “school streets programme” from 8am to 4pm.
But the decision has turned out to be a nightmare for the school which is open from 8am to 5.30pm as the council is planning to remove the concrete blocks stopping through traffic, leaving nothing but road signs telling drivers not to use the street during school hours.
“For those of you who know our school, you will be aware that we have a hall on the opposite side of Riding House Street to the main building,” said head teacher Alix Ascough in an email to local residents in an appeal for help in resolving the impasse with Westminster Council.
“This hall is used throughout the day by children as young as three-years-old. This means small children crossing the street throughout the day.
“As the street has always been closed since the hall was built this has never been a problem. However, with cars and motorcycles using the road I am filled with fear as to how dangerous this would become,” she said.
But despite pleas by Ascough and local residents, the undead zombies at Westminster City Hall seem determined to remove the concrete barriers.
Only ghoulish Westminster Council could take a car-free street and open it to motor traffic and call it a “safer school street”, it seems.
For out of the twilight zone of local authority bureaucracy it has emerged that a decision was taken based on a flawed consultation, as Freedom of Information requests reveal.
“Following the 2020 public consultation and in light of the responses received, the Cabinet Member for City Highways, having considered officers recommendations, has decided not to proceed with the permanent pedestrianisation of a section of Riding House Street as proposed, but rather to include this section of Riding House Street in the School Streets Delivery Programme,” stated a ghostly Westminster Council official.
“The City Council considers this approach to be a pragmatic way forward, and represents a reasonable compromise to reopening the street to motorised traffic at all times.”
According to the Council, a majority of people who responded to the consultation wanted the road to reopen to motor traffic.
“Twenty-four of the objections come from residents of Pearson Square on the Riding House Street side and therefore in the immediate vicinity of the proposed scheme. It is considered that objections from those residing directly on RHS, whose properties front the section of the proposed pedestrianisation, carry more weight,” stated the Council.
The results were puzzling for local people as car ownership in Fitzrovia is one of the lowest in London and most people would be unlikely to ask for motor vehicles to drive past their own windows. And reducing through motor traffic and improving air quality is widely supported in the recently adopted Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Plan.
However, when the detailed results of the consultation were looked at it showed there were multiple responses that were nearly identical. It appeared to be an organised campaign to open the street to motor traffic.
Andy Beverley of the campaign group Westminster Healthy Streets told Fitzrovia News:
“Almost all the negative responses from Riding House Street are virtually identical, and in any case reflect a small proportion of residents who live there. It seems that one disgruntled resident has persuaded a small handful of fellow residents to game the consultation process. It’s disappointing that this obvious situation wasn’t reflected in the council’s consultation report.”
When Fitzrovia News spoke to two families living opposite the school in Riding House Street they said they wanted the street to remain closed to motor vehicles as it would be safer for their children. They were unaware of the consultation but they did know that at least two residents had been campaigning to get the street open again.
Parents and teachers outside the school gates told Fitzrovia News they were deeply disappointed with Westminster Council.
Local resident Barbara Corr said that Westminster is missing an opportunity to improve the street as a social and green space.
“For the children at All Souls’ Primary, this street links their playground and a classroom, and it’s the place where parents wait for them after school — a social place for connecting with other parents.
“They feel safe here and it would be wonderful if Westminster Council enhanced this place by planting some more trees, and creating rain gardens.
“The Council should recognise that this is a living city whose residents need breathable air and priority over cars,” she said.
In response Cllr James Spencer, Westminster City Council cabinet member for city management, told Fitzrovia News they were pushing ahead with their plans but would carry out another consultation.
“Last year, we swiftly installed school streets for social distancing in response to the pandemic. We’re pleased they’re popular and we want to transition into the next stage of the school street programme.
“From November, we will be reintroducing them as a trial under an Experimental Traffic Order. We are in contact with All Souls Primary School about their school street and will continue to work with them on their requirements.
“We encourage residents, businesses, school staff and parents and carers to provide their views on the scheme during the consultation period which is now live. School streets is just one element of our plans to work towards creating a cleaner, greener and safer environment for everyone.”
However, Henry Scutt, chair of governors at the school, said the council has, on the last day of the school term, now agreed to delay the highway works.
“We are relieved that WCC have agreed to delay opening Riding House Street and to meet us on site to discuss our serious concerns about the safety of reopening the street to motor traffic after so many years,” he said.
“We note that the stated aims of the School Streets Programme are to improve air quality and to ‘create a safer and more pleasant environment by limiting the dangers caused by motor vehicles’, and we fail to see how opening a road that now effectively bisects our school site could possibly meet these objectives,” he said.