Everything we know about the Harperbury free school disaster

UPDATE 19 March. New data from Hertfordshire. Although local authorities can non longer build or even commission schools, they still have to keep track of the need for school places. Hertfordshire’s latest report (PDF) shows real and growing need for secondary places across almost the whole county in the next ten years. In Radlett and Bushey, the shortage peaks in 2022/23 when there’s a projected shortage of 181 places. That’s enough children to fill six whole school forms without places. It’s no wonder that the report prominently notes that the Harperbury Free School project has been cancelled. The area needs a new secondary school – and soon.

UPDATE 29 February. Harperbury vice chair Clive Glover has set up a petition. He wants Minster for Education Nicky Morgan to override Lord Nash’s decision and open Harperbury Free School. Sign the petition here. There are 303 signatories so far.

THE STORY SO FAR: It’s all over. The Harperbury Free School that aimed to provide 120 places per year for 11-19s from Shenley, London Colney, Radlett, Bricket Wood and Borehamwood & Elstree, has been thrown out by the Department for Education.

Clive Glover, one of the project’s founders and vice chair of governors, has written a Facebook post about it, which is well worth reading. I spoke to him at the weekend. Here’s the latest:

  1. It’s the minister’s decision. Schools Minister Lord Nash has decided that planning permission for the school is unlikely to be granted by St Albans City and District Council because the site is too small so he’s cancelled the whole scheme.
  2. It’s an EFA cock-up. The Education Funding Agency, the executive agency that dispenses £54 billion (yes, billion) per year on 3-19 education and is responsible for the Academy and Free School programmes, was responsible for launching the school. They didn’t understand the requirements and planned a project that could never have won planning permission. In an answer to a series of written Parliamentary questions from St Albans MP Anne Main, schools minister Edward Timpson vaguely blames the site’s green belt location for the cancellation but doesn’t acknowledge the EFA’s error.
  3. It’s final. There’s no formal way for the decision to be reversed and there’s no appeal process. The Harperbury group haven’t given up, though, and we may see a new or revised application, for this site or another one.
  4. It’s already cost a lot of money. Schools Minister Edward Timpson says “the combined capital and revenue cost of the project to date is £1,919,000”. Clive Glover says this almost certainly understates the actual cost.
  5. The problem hasn’t gone away. The local authority says that, by next year, there will be a shortage of places in secondary schools in the area. Bernadette John, an advisor at the Good Schools Guide, calculates around 90,000 children won’t be allocated their first choice of school nationally. Children from schools in the Radlett area are already dispersed to 57 different secondary schools – from Berkhamsted to Northwood. The council says they’ll need 500 new school places by 2022.
  6. The decision has big implications. The minister’s decision ominously suggests that he thinks it unlikely that any suitable site exists in the area. If that’s true, councils are going to have to look hard at their plans. How will the extra school places, doctor’s surgeries and leisure centres that are needed be provided if there’s no room? The Harperbury group commissioned research that identified over 60 sites in the area – from farmers’ fields to brownfield sites. Is none viable? And remember, councils can’t build their own schools any more, even when the need is evident. They must first seek proposals from academies and free schools.
  7. No children are affected and no one loses their job. After the plan was deferred for the second time last year, the Harperbury team decided not to recruit for 2016 and the headteacher and senior leadership team signed up for the second push were let go.

The core of three governors who have been looking after the project since the last deferral – Clive Glover, Sarah L’efquihi and Nick Eaves, have not given up but have not decided how they’ll respond yet. Hertsmere’s MP, Oliver Dowden, is meeting with the minister this week.

I’ll keep this blog post up to date as I learn more – and if you have any questions you’d like answered, leave them in a comment here or visit the Harperbury Facebook page.

Cycling safety tip: start shouting at cars

This is a post I wrote for Medium the other day and, since it’s about my Radlett-to-Elstree commute, I thought I’d republish it here. Tell me what you think…

It’s for your own safety. Everybody’s safety.

Don’t shout abuse obvs. That’ll make things worse (and get you a lump on the head most likely). Don’t ring your silly bell, wave your fist or offer sarcastic life advice.

Just do this: when a car passes and comes too close or cuts across, shout, as loudly and clearly as you can: “too close!”

The therapy bit

You’re not being aggressive. But you’re not being passive-aggressive either. You’re getting it out there. Getting it off your chest.

Shout those two words. then take some deep breaths and forget about it. The rest of your journey won’t be eaten up with unexpressed rage and terror. You can get on with your ride, maybe enjoy it.

You’ll get to work happier and more relaxed. You’ll find you won’t need to whinge about that maniac to your colleagues (while they roll their eyes and look out the window) and you won’t need to write your standard Facebook update about the murderous wickedness of the whole motorist class.

And, of course, it’s not about all drivers, it’s about that one driver who passed scarily close — and, by yelling “too close!” you sorted it out directly with that one person. Job done. It’s road safety as therapy. As healing.

I’ve been doing it for a while, on the three-mile countryside bit of my commute. I can’t report much change in behaviour but I reckon a handful of drivers have now heard me shout it more than once and common sense says they’ll think about it the next time they pass that lunatic who shouts at cars. Two bus drivers have actually apologised.

The public health bit

If all cyclists do this, sooner or later drivers will get the message and start to move over a bit when they pass cyclists. But, more to the point, if we just keep this stuff to ourselves — if we just fume silently and plot dark revenge — no one can learn, the system can’t learn.

By shouting “too close” you’re adding some information to the system, providing an insight that a driver might simply never have received before. And, if it becomes a more-or-less universal habit, there’s a reasonable chance that behaviour will change, peace will reign, days be improved, maybe even lives saved. Seriously.

More change at the station

UPDATE: The consultation on these plans has begun. Read the plans on the Thameslink web site (or read the summary below) and email your comments to stationchanges@gtrailway.com. You can also send your views to London TravelWatch or Transport Focus.

In summary: Thameslink plans to close the ticket office but the station will be staffed for longer.

  • Radlett’s ticket office will close and passengers will buy tickets from the machines or from a new ‘station host’.
  • Radlett’s station host will be on duty from 0500-2300 Monday-Saturday and 0700-2300 on Sunday.
  • Station hosts will answer questions, sell tickets and help passengers with the existing machines.
  • The station hosts will also keep the toilets and waiting rooms open for longer.

Govia, the firm that operates the Thameslink, Gatwick Express, Southern and London Midland lines, is planning changes at about 80 stations across its network, from Summer 2016.

According to Govia’s statement, they’re going to close some ticket offices, change opening times at others and move staff from behind the glass to the new role of ‘station host’.

These are complex changes across many stations but, on the face of it, the outcome looks positive for Radlett – there’ll be someone on duty at the station from the first train until late at night. Here are some of the questions people have been asking, on Facebook and Twitter:

  • What will be the effect on queues at peak times?
  • Will the portable ticket machines used by the station hosts sell the full range of tickets, including school children’s six-week season tickets, tickets for other networks, Eurostar etc?
  • Where will the station hosts spend their time – in the concourse, on platform 1 or elsewhere?
  • Will the ticket office still be available for use at very busy times?

If you have other questions, leave them in the comments below and I’ll see if I can get answers direct from Thameslink.

A three-week consultation on the changes starts on Monday 22 February. Here’s how to get in touch and here’s a detailed table of affected stations.

Thameslink and TfL – respond to the consultation

So here’s what we know. The Mayor of London and the Government want a new partnership between Transport for London and the Department for Transport to improve London’s transport network. According to the published proposals, TfL will take over the inner-suburban railways – but that doesn’t include Thameslink and the other outer-suburban lines.

So it doesn’t look great: Thameslink will probably remain outside the integrated London system and the patchwork of commercial franchises will continue to run the long-distance commuter services. The plans are fairly vague, though, and they’re out for consultation. So, here’s what to do: read the plans (PDF), then write to railprospectus@tfl.gov.uk and tell the partners that Thameslink and the other suburban railways should be included in the plan.

And, if you’d like to know more about the proposals and the history, read this excellent long post on the London Reconnections blog.

Street photography at the Radlett Centre

Gary Perlmutter walks the streets of London, capturing those decisive moments that define the city. He’s shared this gorgeous set of photographs – from the tradition that includes Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand and Martin Parr – with us and you can see the rest of his exhibition in the Apthorp Gallery at the Radlett Centre until 29 February. Highly recommended.

Two dogs waiting outside a supermarket. In the window, an advert reads 'Dinner for two'
Dinner for two

Two men walk in the city paying attention to their mobile phones. On the hording behind them the word 'Connectivity'.
Four people sit outside an upmarket cafe with coffee.
Two people reading newspapers outside a beach hut, by Gary Perlmutter
Elderly man sleeping in deckchair in the sunshine
Last rays of sunshine
A woman walks past a wooden hording with a painting of hands on it. One of the hands appears to be grabbing the woman's head.

Transport for London and Thameslink – oh dear

A couple of weeks ago we learnt, from an Evening Standard article, of Department for Transport plans to hand control of London’s suburban railways to Transport for London. According to the report, this would include Thameslink and all the other London commuter lines. We all got a bit excited about this.

Whatever you think of Transport for London, handing responsibility for the commuter lines to London’s strategic transport authority makes perfect sense. An integrated urban transport network for Europe’s biggest city – underground, buses, overground, river boats, bikes and roads – ought to include the suburban railways. Even if we did have to wait for the current Thameslink contract to expire in 2021, it looked like a change to be welcomed.

Sadly, the Evening Standard got it wrong.

Thameslink’s press office weren’t able to confirm the story but Transport for London gave me the bad news:

Rail services that are already contracted by TfL include a number of destinations outside the London boundary, such as Watford, Cheshunt and Shenfield. The Thameslink line to Bedford is not part of the scope for the inner suburban routes.

(my highlight)

So the plans don’t cover any of the outer suburban lines. It seems implausible, but the haphazard patchwork of franchises that serves London’s suburbs is somehow still thought to be viable for a 21st Century city and will persist. Sorry.

There may be some hope, though. This press release, from the Mayor, says:

The proposals – on which views are being sought – would see the transfer of rail services that operate mostly or wholly within the Greater London boundary to TfL when the current franchises are due for renewal.

(my highlight)

If ‘on which views are being sought’ means there’s a consultation planned, then I’d anticipate a torrent of contributions from suburban rail users asking for their lines to be included. The consultation hasn’t begun. Watch this space.

Mrs Patel has made a big decision

Rekha Patel in her kiosk on platform 1 at Radlett StationRekha Patel, who runs the invaluable newspaper kiosk on platform 1 at the station, has told me that she’s going to close up for good on 20 February. Her last day in the kiosk will be Friday 19 February.

She’s not retiring: she’ll still be working full-time in her other job and will have much else to keep her busy, so I’m glad she’s decided to close the kiosk – it must have been very hard, taking on the business on her own, after Vinu’s death a year ago, even with the help of Sejal and Beejal and everyone else who’s contributed.

So if you’re passing in the next week or so, do stop by and wish Mrs Patel the best of luck. Radlett’s commuters are going to miss her very much.

Seven things we know about Hertsmere’s plans for Newberries Car Park

Hertsmere Council's plan of the Newberries car park developmentThere’s an ugly old car park behind the shops, between the river and the railway. The council has big plans for it and the community is already mobilising against it. What do we know so far?

1. It’s a big project and it’s going to be politically explosive
Hertsmere Borough Council owns the land and will manage the project. Planning permission hasn’t been obtained yet and, incidentally, the council is also the planning authority. Governance of this project is going to be a hot topic. A committee of senior Hertsmere councillors and officials, led by Chief Executive Donald Graham and finance and property portfolio holder Councillor John Graham has been appointed to supervise the scheme through to construction. Transparency and propriety are going to be hugely important. Everybody in the area will be paying attention.

2. It’s going to be a big shop with a hotel above it
It’ll be a no-frills hotel. A Premier Inn-style joint with no on-site catering, although the retail unit could include a cafe. Guests will, of course, also be able to use local restaurants and shops.

3. It’s all about the money
A local authority sitting on 5,000 square metres of land in a location like this would probably be irresponsible not to try to boost its yield – especially when their numbers suggest it is under-used. The swingeing cuts in local government funding are real and add to the pressure. The document presented to the council’s executive (PDF) makes a lot of the need for funds and uses government cuts as an argument for maximising the income from the land by retaining ownership of the project and partnering with a developer rather than just selling the land.

4. There’s risk – for the authority and for the community
The provisional plans have some sketchy numbers for return on investment and there are obviously no guarantees for the success of a big new shop (some people say it’ll be an Aldi) and a hotel. The proposed approach sees the council taking on more risk than if they simply sold the land. There may also be substantial borrowing. Hertsmere is not a big authority and doesn’t have much slack. This won’t be a walk in the park.

5. We’re all going to be talking about the parking
Newberries car park has 216 places and, according to the council, an occupancy rate of 60%. So, on average, 130 of the available spaces are used at any one time. That leaves 86 spaces for the use of the 80-room hotel. More spaces are planned as part of the development, for the shop mainly. Whatever happens, it’s going to be tight, even on an average day. And all that’s before we’ve even thought about access to the site and extra traffic.

6. The land floods
Everybody remembers the car park under water as recently as 2014. The car park is part of an area that’s meant to be allowed to flood when the river overflows. Elaborate measures will have to be taken to make the development comply with the Environment Agency’s rules. The council’s response is to build the shop and the hotel on stilts. Does that sound viable? Quite possibly. Does it sound unproblematic? No.

7. There’s already opposition from the community.
Local campaigner Clive Glover has written a detailed objection in the Radlett Village Facebook Group (you may need to be a member of the group to see this). He questions the business case and asks important questions about capacity and access. We’ll hear a lot more of this. There’s talk of a petition and a public meeting.

And there’s going to be a lot more to this project. It’s certainly the biggest individual development in Radlett in the eighteen years I’ve lived here. It’s bound to cause a big fuss in the village. No one’s automatically against development and we, like all communities, expect our local authorities to get the best possible return on their assets but we also expect plans like this to respect the needs of the community and not steamroller existing businesses. The obvious potential for conflict of interest in this development is going to make it particularly tricky for officials and councillors. The financial risks are potentially ruinous and the plan so far contains no new community amenities at all, beyond the commercial elements.

The council’s plans were presented to a meeting of the executive committee. Download a PDF of the documents presented (including drawings).

The Borehamwood Times wrote up the executive’s approval of the council’s proposal, based on this Hertsmere press release. A big story like this needs serious treatment from local media. This is a great opportunity for them to really dig in and devote some full-time effort to it. I hope they do.