Meeting Hears How Motcombe School’s Popularity Has Led To Road Safety Issues

On Friday, villagers debated traffic and speeding issues that some parents fear are putting Motcombe Primary pupils at risk. And proposals to put a new Academy Trust in charge of the school could add to the challenge of finding solutions.

The parents and villagers who attended Friday’s Coppleridge Inn meeting sat through a passionate and fast-paced two-hour presentation led by parent Fran Bridgewater. She wants to protect children walking to and from Motcombe Primary School and also keep villagers safe.

Parking outside the school and the school run congestion has become a major issue. “If an incident happens at 8.45am in the morning, there isn’t a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ that a fire engine or ambulance will be able to get to the village,” said Fran, who has championed campaigns to encourage safer driving through Motcombe.

Fran Bridgewater addresses the meeting in the Coppleridge Inn

Fran held up her homemade crossing patrol sign, used when the school walking bus was in operation. That community-driven solution ended when other parents left Fran to singlehandedly shepherd other people’s kids to school. Fran, who is also a Community Speedwatch stalwart said that the group had not resolved the general speeding issue, although drivers do slow down when they see the volunteers.

Fran used dramatic pictures of two recent incidents to illustrate why she feels the road outside the school has reached a ‘crisis point’. In summer, a Mini flipped around when it collided with a car near Motcombe Primary. “One of the mums at school is still recovering and she was off work for a very long time,” said Fran.

And on 26th November, a mum pushing her child’s buggy momentarily lost control of her other child. Five-year-old Taylor rushed between vans parked near the church. She obeyed her mother’s command to remain still. Luckily, it was Fran, an advanced motorist, who was driving past and she knew how to react speedily.

Dorset councillor Belinda Ridout and MP Simon Hoare heard those stories on Friday. Simon told Alfred they worried him. “I think we all are,” he said.

Part of the problem has been the school’s rapid growth. In 2012 there were 86 children on the roll. There are 186 today. Breakfast and afternoon activities mean children can be on site from 7.45am until 5.30pm. “It works for working parents, which is why we’re doing incredibly well. The pressure on the village is huge,” said Fran.

“It’s a great problem to have,” said Simon Hoare. “It’s a popular school. I think the school needs to think about how it solves the issue and better educates parents with regards to where and how they park,” he added.

“The school tries desperately hard to educate the parents,” said Reverend Pam Rink. “They communicate with them about the problem. They are constantly sending out information to the parents and trying to encourage them.”

Ironically, parents and grandparents parking and dropping off kids are, in part, creating safety issues for other children. One villager explained that she now drives her kids because it’s safer than walking.

Motcombe Primary School

Fran believes it is harder to engage with parents from outside Motcombe. “This is where there is a ‘town versus village’ feeling,” she said, adding that fifty Shaftesbury parents now drop their kids off each day. That led to calls for Southern Academy Trust to fund a daily minibus to and from the nearby town.

When Trust Chairman Chris Brickell challenged those figures, former Motcombe Parish Chairman Alistair Leaske demanded that that Academy Trust, ‘Start considering Motcombe and not money’. “Motcombe is getting very angry,” he warned.

“They keep saying there is no money. It’s probably true but they haven’t put any other suggestions forward where they can help in receiving the pupils coming into their school in a safe and orderly manner. Nothing is coming from the Academy and I think it’s very sad,” he said.

Some parents muttered that it was ‘all about money’ but Mr Brickell said that education funding was an issue, particularly in Dorset. “It’s one of the lowest funded counties in the country,” he said. “They get around £4,000 per pupil. If you are in a London Borough, you get something close to £10,000. The surplus discretionary funds we have available to spend on the stuff of that nature is so small it would barely scratch the problem.” As the MP left to attend a prior engagement, Mr Brickell challenged Simon Hoare to increase education budgets.

The Trust might not be around for much longer. On the 15th January, the Regional Schools Commissioners will determine whether the Sherborne Area Schools Trust can take on the responsibilities of the Southern Academy Trust. It means that Mr Brickell will leave his position and Fran is concerned that discussions with the new trust will have to start from the beginning

One idea, which could require some cash from whichever trust is in charge, is extending the school car park. It can’t currently accommodate all the teaching staff vehicles. But Revered Rink was worried that using that small car park for drop-offs would create a more dangerous situation.

Cllr Barney Mauleverer summed up potential solutions aired in the meeting on a flip chart. “There are a lot of short-term and inexpensive things that could be effective, like making sure the school enforces certain rules around the pickup, staggering drop-off and pickup. There’s talk about having a drop zone by the village hall, which they have tried in the past. It just needs organising and it can’t just be parent volunteers,” said Barney.

And there was a significant infrastructure-based solution brought to the meeting. “A generous offer of a field for a car park next to the school, which I do think does have legs, but that will come with complications,” said Barney. Mr Coles proposed to donate his land with space for fifty to sixty cars and room for a drop zone ‘similar to Bristol Airport’. The plot would be gifted should consent be granted for house building on nearby land.

But another resident had calculated that the 6-hectare site could house 335 homes if the government’s housing density figures were applied. Mr Cole denied that he had proposed that number of properties. Fran advised the meeting that the offer was complicated as the fields were home to protected wildlife. Motcombe has adopted its Neighbourhood Plan, too. The planning blueprint determines what gets built where and this land isn’t ring-fenced for homes.

Arguably the event organisers smartest move was to invite Dorset Council Highways Manager Michael Potter to the forum. Mr Potter was shown pictures of the cars parked outside the school and asked whether the local authority could pursue the solutions suggested in the meeting.

One by one, he explained why the ideas would not fix the parking, speeding or congestion issues or would fail to meet the highway regulations. Speed humps and rumble strips are out of favour because they create noise and pollution, he explained. Adding white lines down the road would make drivers less cautious. And hatching marks outside the school or church wouldn’t be enforceable.

Residents outside the school don’t want double yellow lines, but Mr Potter didn’t believe that a residents-only parking restriction at school drop off and pick-up times could be enforced.

Fran explained that Motcombe was considered as a short-cut route for people in the area. A police officer had told her that it was only the case if drivers speeded through the village and Barney agreed. “The problem is Mere, Gillingham and Shaftesbury of which we are bang in the middle,” said Barney. “All three of those towns are expanding with new housing and new populations.”

Fran singled out the straight stretch of Motcombe Road leading from the hollow as the most troubling speeding spot, where she has clocked people driving at 70mph. “It’s the fastest, most dangerous bit of the whole village,” said Fran. “It’s just a blatant motorway, boy-racer run.”

Michael explained that a suggested chicane there could create more problems as the road ahead was visible and drivers would speed up to beat oncoming vehicles before the traffic calming. He also said it was unlikely that a footway could be added. His tone wasn’t negative – he just explained the reasons why ideas couldn’t be pursued.

Barney was pleased that Mr Potter stayed for the entire meeting. “The fact that he turned up – he’s got kids at school himself and he understands the issue. I think we will get there just chipping away at it. I just hope we get there quickly enough,” he said.

Fran had told Mr Brickell and Mr Potter that there were experienced fundraisers who could help underwrite projects in this generally affluent village if needed. But the Highways Manager said it wasn’t about the money. “It would come down to viability and whether it is worth doing. We’re not a shop. We are not doing things purely because of cost. There has to be a genuine need and the regulations have to support us,” said Mr Potter.

Nevertheless, Rev Rink expressed disappointment that many of the ideas can’t be progressed. “It just feels that it doesn’t matter what we suggest, it’s not viable,” she said.

Dorset Police couldn’t attend but Fran is hopeful that two of their initiatives could prove useful. Operation Snap encourages people to photo traffic violations, such as dangerous parking. Michael advised that the speed cannot be measured in pictures but new TruCam speed cameras could be made available to Community Speedwatch in a forthcoming trial. “Traffic calming doesn’t calm drivers down,” said Michael. “Excessive speed is an enforcement issue.”

Fran asked Michael what he thought was the most viable solution raised. He said education was key. “For my team to work with the school with travel planning with parents. The biggest influence of peoples’ behaviour is awareness,” he said.

Fran says she now has a clear understanding of what her group needs to change. “It’s drivers’ attitudes. It’s parents’ attitude. It’s respect for a village that is, with open arms, welcoming all of these extra people as long as we all give and take and look after each other,” she said.

Mr Hoare had suggested more research and Fran believes it could help. “It’s a market research study that needs to be carefully thought about because it needs careful wording and we need to ascertain why people park as they do currently.”

Simon Hoare felt the well-attended session was useful. “It’s great to see so many of the community and representatives of community bodies here tonight,” said Simon. “Nobody is denying that there is an issue. They seem to be focused on finding a solution. I stand ready to do what I can to keep the focus of Dorset Council Highways in playing its part, to think about solutions. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution but there are certain elements that will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Now many ideas are off the table, Fran knows what her team has to work with. She will update the Parish Council meeting at 7.30pm on Tuesday at the Memorial Hall. “I think we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board on several things. A lot of it goes to the academy. The academy is now communicating with the Parish Council and they are talking to the Highways Agency, so we have opened up a line of communication that didn’t exist before, which I think is good.”