Councillors send decision to axe lollipop ladies back to Executive
On Monday night, a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee deliberated over July’s vote to axe school crossing patrollers. SUE CORCORAN was present and brings this special report detailing their deliberations, explaining why the council’s ruling body will now need to vote again on the plans
THE fight to stop removal of lollipop ladies outside some schools has been given a big boost.
In a rare move, Wokingham Borough councillors from all three parties have ordered a review of the decision to axe seven patrollers and replace them with pedestrian crossings.
In a crunch vote at the end of a meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny committee held at Shute End on Monday evening, Conservative councillor Kate Haines (Coronation ward) joined two Lib Dem councillors and one Labour councillor to send the decision back to the council’s Executive committee.
This will now take place at a special emergency meeting to be held on Monday, September 17.
The vote comes despite the committee being Conservative controlled. Two Conservatives voted against: the other Conservatives present did not vote.
The decision to ‘call in’ the plan to axe the crossing controllers was made by the opposition Liberal Democrat councillors following the signing of two petitions by a total of 1,862 people have raised concerns about axing the patrollers.
This lead to a full council debate held in July where Conservative councillors unanimously stood up in the chamber to declare that zebra, pelican and puffin crossings would be safer for school runs than the much-loved lollipop ladies and men, known officially as school crossing patrollers.
Seven school sites were affected by the decision to axe the crossings, but work had to be halted as a result of the callin decision.
On Monday, the scrutiny committee heard criticisms about how the decision to axe and replace the lollypop ladies was made by the council’s powerful executive committee.
Calling them to account, the scrutiny committee, gave reasons for asking for the review:
The original decision to stop having patrollers was in 2015, before the consultation with schools and residents. This meant the consultation was not seen as meaningful.
The 2015 decision was taken without an underpinning business case. The July 2018 executive report failed to show current crossing patrol costs and also the full finances of putting the permanent crossings into action, their maintenance and future replacement.
The 2015 decision was taken without an underpinning equality impact assessment to see if disadvantaged or vulnerable people would be discriminated against. The April 2018 assessment did not detail consultation with specific groups. It did not have give individual details about each crossing site.
The executive will now have to rethink in the light of the criticisms.
Diane Burch, a crossing patroller in Murray Road, Wokingham, whose job is threatened, said afterwards: “I’m hoping Murray Road will be a special case because of its traffic situation. They need to see me in action.”
She told the meeting: “It’s a very dangerous and busy spot. If I’m replaced with a crossing it will be an accident waiting to happen.”
She said a survey had shown 150 pedestrians crossing in half an hour in the morning.
But her own half-hour survey starting 15 minutes later, and covering her duty time, showed 295 adults and children crossing.
“A lot of the children have scooters, I make them walk them across. It’s a safety feature,” she said.
“Without me being there you will get gridlock .... I can make the decision when to stop the people and traffic. I ask those who park on double yellow lines to move on, they understand and move.”
She added that residents did not want her to go.
Cllr Lindsay Ferris (Twyford, Lib Dem), Cllr Ian Pittock (Finchampstead South, Lib Dem) and Cllr Andy Croy (Bulmershe and Whitegates, Lab) all voted for the executive rethink.
Lib Dem leader Cllr Ferris said afterwards he was very pleased about the decision.
He told the scrutiny meeting that the residents’ consultation organised by Wokingham Borough Council earlier this year was “nothing more than lip service” and an equality impact assessment prepared for the Executive’s decision making was a tick box exercise.
He added that the business case was “completely deficient.”
He felt that the cost of the officer to supervise the crossing patrollers should have been a third of that given and the figures overestimated the patrollers’ cost, while future costs of permanent crossings should have been included. In 15 years’ time the £361,000 crossings could cost £500,000 to replace when they wore out.
Cllr Croy said there was a risk the consultation had not picked up some concerns raised by residents in the consultation and felt that the council had a chance to show it did listen to them.
Emmbrook resident Keith Malvern said that compared with 251 fatalities nationally on all crossings over a period there had been only four on human patrolled ones.
An the Murray Road area raised by residents was heavily congested, particularly at school times. School gates were close to the road and if children ran out it could be into the arms of the patroller. This would not happen with a zebra crossing. It was also pointed out that children from The Holt, Emmbrook and Woosehill schools all walked through the area.
Annette Medhurst of Meadow Nursery School in Murray Road said: “I’m very concerned about the safety of the children.”
Sites, she added, should be looked at on an individual basis. “Our patrollers do a fantastic job – they go above and beyond their job description,” she said.
She felt that residents’ concerns had been considered irrelevant by councillors and then dismissed. “I felt the decision had been made, it felt like it was almost a retrospective consultation.” Parents had been encouraged to fill in the consultation document. The nursery had also set up a petition and written to councillors. “We hoped that would be a more effective way of getting our opinions known,” she said.
Cillr Imogen Shepherd-DuBey (Emmbrook, Lib Dem) said: “The loss of the lollipop lady at Emmbrook Infants and Junior Schools has been severe.”
Complaints about poor parking had increased and the schools now had a ‘holding pen’ inside the school gates as parents were worried about the road. Previously, the patroller had managed these problems.
She added that one study of pedestrian and vehicle numbers had been done at half-term while redundancy warnings were sent out before consultations were complete.
Each school’s needs should have been assessed for equality impact. Parents had little chance to change the plan. There had been no consultation during its formative stages.
She added that a zebra crossing at the Forest School was removed because it was dangerous.
Cllr Pittock said the council had been “frankly dismissive of residents’ views”.
Cllr Anthony Pollock (Shinfield South, Con) executive member for transport said:
“I have sought to listen. I recognise it is a sensitive issue.”
It was difficult to make a consultation where it was more emotive rather than factual. “I have tried to listen and take on board comments made. I have asked for changes as a result of that,” he added.
He denied the council’s constitution had been breached and said that the process had been as fair and detailed as it could be.
He had visited all the sites. At Murray Road he was “impressed by drivers’ preparedness to stop and let people cross the road.” He saw no speeding cars.
“We have bent over backwards to consult and listen.”
He had asked the officers to look at pavement width outside a school and incorporated views from a nursery school into a final crossing design to make it as safe as possible.
The council had consulted and the proposals were safe.
Where patrolled crossings had been removed in the past year there had been no additional accidents. Permanent crossings were available throughout the day.
He wanted safer routes to school. “If it costs a bit more to do it, I’m afraid we have to,” he added.
Cllr Ferris claimed the executive had made a decision on incomplete and inaccurate figures. Cllr Pollock said the cash flow would be repaid in eight years.
Cllr Croy said 97% of people consulted had been opposed to losing the crossing patrollers. He asked what percentage would have been needed for a changed decision.
Cllr Pollock said the impossibility of a crossing being installed or that it would be unsafe would have had to be shown.
Cllr Pittock said opposition councillors had just a week to study 1,000 lines of budget cuts proposals, including the patrollers plan, in 2015.
They needed longer to scrutinise them.
Also speaking was Wokingham Borough Council highways officer Matt Gould.
He said the council had written to the patrollers saying they were at risk of redundancy after the executive decision to remove them. They had still not been given notice.
Cllr Ferris asked about the authority needed to carry on with work for two sites in the summer.
Director of Localities Josie Wragg said that after the call in for the strategy committee to look at the plan, there had to be a decision about continuing. Stopping the work would have incurred the council considerable financial costs.
Cllr Shahid Younis (Bulmershe and Whitegates, Con) said of the executive’s decision to remove the patrollers: “I don’t believe this was a cost saving exercise. It’s more expensive in the long run.”
He said each crossing should be looked at separately. Murray Road, Wokingham should be highlighted. He had some concerns about the consultation. Some things needed doing better next time.
Cillr Bill Soane (Loddon, Con) said: “There are some areas where one size doesn’t fit all. We should look at all sites individually.”
Cllr Malcolm Richards (Norreys, Con) said crossing patrols were very difficult to maintain and that there are no volunteers when a vacancy arose. Permanent crossings provided substantial extra safety.
The Wokingham Paper has been reporting on issues around school crossing patrollers over the past year, including highlighting children’s anger over the axing of ‘Mrs Lolly’