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1 July 2008 : Column 218WH—continued

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Bede Academy (Blyth Valley)

1 pm

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): This is not a big issue to bring before Parliament, but I raise it because I was asked to do so by 150 residents at a public meeting. I could have done it in a few ways, but I thought that a half-hour Adjournment debate was the answer.

If I were to use the words of Oliver Hardy, “This is another fine mess”, I think that I would be right. One has to see the estate to understand its problems. We can talk about the issues, but we need to see them to understand them. Northumberland county council decided to move to a two-tier education system and brought in Peter Vardy and the Emmanuel Schools Foundation to build an academy. South Beach first school had to be demolished, because a site was needed for the enormous new school. The decision was taken to build the school on the playing fields of South Beach against the advice of the local district council planners, who referred to the number of pupils who would have to go into the estate. The county council planners, however, pushed the matter through against the wishes of most of the people who lived near the school and of the local authority at the time. I opposed the project, but my voice fell on deaf ears—it always does—in the county council.

Now, we are building another big academy—a senior academy—on a derelict old school site in the middle of a council estate. Again, the same arguments were put about another big school going into the middle of an estate. The Bede academy is based on the South Beach site, which is in a private estate. The big school is to be built on the council estate. The locals have faced many problems. For examples, contractors work until 1 am, and big wagons full of cement have been driven through the estate. It is easy to imagine how the residents feel. I understand that a local county councillor was dragged from his bed to experience the noise and disruption—I am pleased that I was not him—and witness the scene. I received first-hand information about what happened, and it had something to do with the cement.

When such schools are built, they are not planned with the residents’ needs in mind. If they were, different sites would be used. The awful thing about this is that there are—and were—alternative sites. Delaval middle school is off a main road, and the school could have been built on that site. Wensleydale middle school, which will disappear as well, is off a main road, and that site, too, could have been used. What the planners envisaged—and what we all envisage—were the numbers of parents driving their children to school. When we were at school, we all walked to school. Unfortunately, all the kids are driven to school today. I can understand that if a school is built in a council estate or in a private estate, all the kids would be able to walk there. However, that will not be the case, because the school has a big catchment area.

Road safety is also an issue. It is not a big site and there is no room to park, but the school will be massive. It has already enrolled 320 pupils, and it will eventually take 630 pupils, with 70 in the nursery. It is not hard to imagine the problems that the little estate will have in future. Local residents have experienced a number of
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problems in the past. For example, an ambulance could not get through to an emergency because of the cars parked on the pavements outside the school. The worst example was when an old lady from one of the streets was being buried. The hearse could not turn round. People had to bring out the coffin into the middle of the road because of the cars parked outside the school. The local residents have had an ongoing battle with the head teacher, who shakes her head and tries to ignore the complaints. The problems will be compounded by the heavy wagons coming in. I understand that the problem may abate because negotiations are under way with the breweries to put in a temporary road, which will take the lorries off the street and bring them straight on to the site. That might alleviate the number of big lorries driving through the estate, but it will not stop the problem of huge numbers of parents coming into the school.

I met some parents at the public meeting who did not want the school located on the estate; they never wanted it there, because they had seen the problems. As far as I understand, the contract has been signed. The Emmanuel Schools Foundation is going to build the school. It is ready to go on site when the new road is constructed, so I do not think that we can stop the project. I would love to say, “Look, Mr. Vardy, you have it in the wrong place. The planners have made a big mistake.” The district council planners, too, believe that that is the case, and they told the organisation that it is making a big mistake building the school on the estate. However, the decision has been made. It is bad planning by the previous county council. That council has made a few messes, and the new school site was one of them.

Local resident Carol Innes said:

She was right; it is built in the wrong place. Another resident said:

They said it would be hell not only for the 18 months when the contractors were on site, but afterwards, when all the parents were dropping off their children at the school and the nursery. I do not know how we will handle that problem, or get anything decent in the area for the residents. If one road is cut off, people could drive down the other road, but the residents in the area there would be affected. If we close the entrance through Shearwater way, Curlew way will suffer. Either way, this estate was not built to take heavy traffic to a school. The council should build a small school by all means. A small school was there before and there were a few problems, but now they will increase.

The residents are so angry that they are going to form a picket line to stop the traffic coming in—I do not mind that, and I will stand on the picket line; I have been on many picket lines—because no one listened to them when they questioned the planning. What amazes me is that when I ask whether anyone has inspected the site from a road safety angle, residents say, “No, we have never seen anyone from road safety.” If I ask whether the planners have been back, residents say, “No.” The police say that the road is a highway and that nothing can be done to cars on a highway. They cannot do anything unless the car is causing an obstruction.

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The local people certainly have a problem. I do not know how it will be resolved, but I hope that the Minister can put some pressure on the county council. I know that the council is at sixes and sevens at the minute, because it has a new administration and the officials need to get their feet on the ground. By the way, the county council is not Labour; it is Liberal—we lost it at the last election—and it has the same problem that it had under Labour. We bulldozed the plan through, but if the Labour administration had not been so pig-headed, and had listened and taken the time to look at the decision, so that everyone agreed, we might have ended up getting a better site, and we would not have this problem.

I feel sorry for the residents, because I can see the problem, which is why I have brought this issue to the Chamber, because if we cannot do anything else we need to put some safety measures on the roads that the traffic will use to come into the school. Laws need to be laid down hard and fast. Nobody should be allowed outside the gates, and there must be plenty of room inside the new school for parking facilities, if the project has to go ahead. As I have said, the contracts have been signed. I told the residents that they would be lucky to get the county council to withdraw, and they will certainly not get the Emmanuel Schools Foundation to withdraw, because it wanted that site all the time. It will not withdraw, as the contracts have been signed. If it did so, it would cost millions of pounds.

I therefore urge the Minister to talk to the county council and ask officials what they have been doing. He may have already done so; I do not know. He might have been in touch with the council. However, road safety measures must be put in place, to give local people some respite. Hopefully, permission will be obtained from the brewery to put the new road in, which would alleviate part of the immediate problem. It must be remembered that the other school must be demolished, and it will take 18 months to clear the site and demolish the buildings. The big wagons still have to come in. They cannot come in on the new road; they must come in on one of the low roads, because the old school is on one side and the new road is on the other side. There is therefore a problem all round. The residents obviously know that and they are up in arms. I have done my job; I have raised this issue in Parliament, and I hope that the Minister can give us a bit of leeway.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): In calling the Minister, I must say that I look forward to hearing him explain the ministerial responsibility for this matter.

1.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): Mr. Wilshire, it is a pleasure to see you presiding in the Chair this afternoon.

May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) on securing the time to discuss traffic, parking and road safety issues related to the Bede academy, which is in his constituency? Indeed, we have been researching the road safety issues in the Department for Transport. I know that he has raised a number of planning issues and wider issues of policy, including those about the
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relationships between the county council, the local council and his own role as an MP. However, I will refer only to the road safety issues, which at least will give him an indication of what the Department lays down as guidance and what we think is about to happen, which he will be able to relay to his constituents. They can then identify whether the proposals or the consultative arrangements, which will allow them to influence the proposals in due course, meet their requirements. I will outline those consultative arrangements shortly.

The introduction of the all-age academy is linked to the county council’s reorganisation of schools in Blyth from a three-tier system to a primary-secondary system. The primary school site will expand in size, because it will take in year 5 and year 6 pupils currently educated at middle schools as part of the school reorganisation project, which was described by my hon. Friend. That will be on top of the existing first school pupils up to year 4. Therefore, the site will be substantially larger than the existing first school.

The transport assessment produced for the expanded school proposes a number of actions to curb poor parking and to improve safety. It is important that, as the planning approvals for the primary academy are implemented, that package of measures is put into place. The academy received its main planning approval from Northumberland county council last year. The Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which is promoting the academy, produced a transport assessment of the impact of the development. That is consistent with Government policy that, where a new development is likely to have significant transport implications, a transport assessment should be prepared and submitted with the planning application. For Blyth as a whole, the transport assessment is that the redistribution of traffic resulting from the change in educational provision in the town would represent no change in exposure to risk.

The transport assessment then focuses on what should be done at and near the site of the junior academy. The strategy proposed in the assessment rests on two main components. The first is that there should be travel planning to promote more walking and cycling and less travel to school by private car. The target is to reduce the proportion of children arriving by car from about 48 to 40 per cent. in the next two years. The second component is that the planning permission itself should include a number of conditions related to traffic and parking, to reduce on-street parking and to improve safety on the roads near the school.

The Emmanuel Schools Foundation submitted a travel plan framework alongside the planning application last year. That framework scopes a travel plan that would include many of the interventions contained in “Travelling to School: a good practice guide”, which the Department for Transport and the former Department for Education and Skills issued in 2003.

For example, the travel plan framework for the junior academy indicates that cycle parking will be provided on site and that cycle training is being considered for year 4 pupils. The framework also includes a new pedestrian access from Curlew way as well as the existing access from Fulmar drive. The existing entrance from Shearwater way will be gated and restricted to vehicular access for staff and formal visitors only. Staff and visitors would then reach the school itself via a controlled security door to prevent unauthorised access. This is to discourage
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the use by parents’ vehicles of Shearwater way, where there is a lot of concern about parking, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The school building cannot be brought into use until the school travel planning framework is developed and then approved in writing by the county council in its capacity as the planning authority. I hope that that provides an assurance to my hon. Friend that the travel planning framework is important and that it will and must be developed further.

I will now turn to the second strand of the strategy: the planning conditions associated with traffic and parking. A key condition is that the approved development cannot be brought into use until a traffic management and calming scheme has been approved. The traffic scheme will be designed to reduce speed, obstruction and indiscriminate parking on the adjacent highway network.

I am pleased to report that the Emmanuel Schools Foundation’s technical consultants have drawn up an outline scheme. A public consultation is planned for this autumn or perhaps sooner. That will enable full consultation to happen in time for the scheme to be implemented by September 2009, when the junior academy is due to open. The scheme is likely to include a 20 mph zone, traffic regulation orders, parking bays and some physical traffic calming measures. Exactly what will be done will depend on the result of the public consultation.

The county council, in its capacity as the local highway authority, would approve the laying of any necessary legal orders in the light of the consultation. There are some other conditions of the planning permission that are relevant to traffic and parking issues. For example, the existing public car parks will be modified, rationalised and marked out, so that they become more suitable and safe dropping-off points. A better staff car park must also be provided. Further planning conditions relate to construction traffic. For example, construction traffic is not allowed to enter or leave the school site at or near the beginning or end of the school day.

Finally, in respect of the road network near the junior academy site, I understand that the county council is committed to introducing traffic signals at the junction of Fulmar drive with the A1061 South Newsham road before the expanded school opens. The work has been needed because of the existing traffic at the junction, but it will also help traffic en route to the primary academy. Although the precise local issues are different,
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a similar process of planning approvals, travel planning and local works is in progress at the secondary site of the academy.

I hope that I have helped to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have a framework in place to ensure that developments such as the Bede academy are implemented safely and sustainably. I recognise that it is inevitable that some developments will give rise to local concerns about road safety when they are planned and implemented. Local authorities, which are accountable to their communities and working within planning legislation, are well placed to reach balanced decisions about planning applications.

Road safety is a well established part of the development planning framework. It is covered in the planning policy guidance that the Government issue to local authorities. The Government have also emphasised the importance of reducing the traffic impacts of all schools through travel plans to reduce the proportion of pupils being driven to and from school. They have produced advice on good practice and provided specific funding to local authorities for school travel planning.

There is evidence that the county council and the schools foundation have considered road safety issues and have proposed to take action. The next step is for them to deliver the actions and, in particular, to consult on the traffic management and calming scheme for the area near the primary academy. The planning conditions provide a good starting point for local people to ensure that they do deliver as the academy is built and then when it opens.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will play his full part to ensure that the scheme is as good as it can be. He indicated that constituents requested that he raise this debate. They will no doubt check Hansard and listen to the proposals that have been made. I am sure that some will be given sound reassurance but others will have questions. They will see from the text that a consultation is planned in due course, and I am sure that they will want to play their full part on their own, and with and through my hon. Friend and the assistance that he and his office can give them.

With that, I hope that I have given my hon. Friend some assurance. Obviously, there is a long way to go and much work to be done, but at least we have outlined the protections that are in place for local people.

1.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Epilepsy (Electronic Games)

1.30 pm

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I am here to take forward the case of one of my constituents, Gaye Herford, who came to me last year, telling me that her son had suffered a photosensitive epilepsy attack while playing a computer game. The more I looked into that specific case and the more general issues surrounding photosensitive epilepsy, or PSE, the more concerned I became.

It rapidly became clear that for an attack of photosensitive epilepsy to happen two things have to be true. First, somebody has to be photosensitive, and it is not always apparent that they are. A lot of people have latent photosensitivity that is invisible to medical science and it only becomes clear that someone is photosensitive when, sadly, they suffer the kind of attack that Gaye Herford’s son experienced. Secondly, such a person has to be exposed to the wrong stimuli or triggers—particular combinations of rapidly flashing or flickering lights, colours and patterns. If someone is photosensitive and is exposed to particular combinations, that will trigger a photosensitive epileptic attack.

The good news for all the people who are photosensitive in this country is that we have a relatively well established set of regulations, which have been in place for many years and have been supported by successive Governments of all political stripes, that were introduced to regulate TV broadcasters. Approximately 23,000 or so people in the United Kingdom are known to have photosensitive epilepsy. What is not known is the total number of people who are photosensitive but whose epilepsy has not been triggered because they have not been exposed to the wrong, dangerous combination of flickering lights, patterns and colours. The only evidence that we have comes from an incident in 1997 in Japan, which was triggered by a four-second flashing sequence in a TV episode of the cartoon, “Pokémon”. In that incident, 685 people were admitted to hospital. A follow-up report showed that 560 of them had definitely had epileptic seizures and, of that number, 76 per cent. had no previous history of epilepsy. In other words, if those proportions held good in the UK—there is no evidence either way to say whether they do or do not, but it is the best indicator that science has at the moment—the number of 23,000 PSE sufferers in the UK can be grossed up, probably, to show that at least 100,000 people are photosensitive, three quarters of whom are latent and do not know that they are at risk if they see the wrong combination of lights, as I have just described.

Why is that important? This Government and previous Governments were right to put in place the existing regulations applying to TV broadcasters, who are required to check everything that they put out and usually remove any offending passages in what they plan to broadcast to ensure that the risk is reduced. As a result of that, TV-triggered instances of photosensitive epilepsy are comparatively rare in this country. The last well-documented occasion happened when the logo for the 2012 London Olympics was first broadcast on TV and triggered 30 reported incidents at least. That was so rare that it made the national news.

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