A group of pupils in east London have seen off – temporarily at least – the workers who had come to dismantle their school street.
Parents gathered outside Chisenhale primary school in Mile End on Thursday morning to show support for the area, which includes a play space protected by a wooden fence, trellised with plants and painted in bright colours.
On Wednesday night, after a neighbour spotted men in hi-vis jackets arriving at the site with tools and vans to demolish it, children and parents rallied to defend it.
Rowena Macdonald said: “As soon as they told me they were here to dismantle the street structures I mobilised all the parents and children I could to come and get in their way and defend our play space.”
Children came out of nearby houses in their pajamas, pulling on raincoats and wellies to protect the space. They climbed on top of plastic road barriers, shouting and singing as construction workers tried to move them.
The standoff – which followed a temporary victory for the families who want the zone to stay in place – was the second time workers from Tower Hamlets council had come, on the orders of the mayor, Lutfur Rahman, to dismantle the popular structure.
The mayor wants to remove the school street, including closures on surrounding roads at school pickup and dropoff times.
The issue has divided the borough, with some neighbours saying the structure is an eyesore and obstruction.
Ten-year-old Ivy stayed up late until the workers were eventually forced to retreat at about 10pm. “The men had a big truck and they wanted to take our fences away but we got in the way, we climbed on the barriers and then it was too dangerous for them,” she said.
As the workers pulled away, having managed to only get as far as draining water used to hold down bollards that were blocking the end of the space, parents and children cheered and sang.
Parents are furious about the plans, which they say are just the beginning of a wider move by the mayor to let permission for the borough’s other school streets lapse when they come up for renewal.
Sarah Gibbons, who has been leading the campaign locally, said it was “heartbreaking” to see the removal of the school street, which could expose children to more pollution from car use.
“This is one of the most polluted parts of London. Children in Tower Hamlets have a reduced lung capacity because of the levels here. We also have very low levels of car ownership – a lot of the traffic in the morning here is people commuting in from Essex in cars.
“The pavements here are very narrow, and before we had this there where hundreds of young children crowded every morning and afternoon. On a rainy day like this, there are always more cars and it is just heartbreaking and so awful that the council want to remove this for ideological purposes.”
Campaigners say there has not been a proper consultation over the plans, and suggest the removal is being driven by a “pro-motorist” ideology that is “behind the times”.
“We all saw the impact of 40C days in the summer, it was horrendous here in east London. We are also seeing more flooding. The future has to be about reducing car use and protecting our children from pollution,” Gibbons said.
The scheme is part of a school streets programme put in place by the former local Labour administration in April 2021 under an emergency traffic order (ETO).
When the deadline recently came up for Chisenhale’s ETO, Tower Hamlets’ public realm team recommended to Rahman that the school streets scheme should stay.
However, Rahman told them to allow the ETO to lapse, and has said publicly he wants to remove all the barriers and timed closures. On Thursday morning, however, parents said they had been promised a meeting with council officials.
Gibbons said: “We are going to have a meeting with the public realm team. They have promised they will not attempt this again, turning up in the dark to try to take it without us noticing.”
The mayor and Tower Hamlets council have been approached for a response.
In a previous comment last week, a spokesperson for Rahman said: “The mayor has decided – in keeping with his manifesto promise to reopen the roads – that the road closures will not be made permanent.
“However, the mayor and the council take the safety of children extremely seriously, and have therefore asked officers of the council to examine alternatives to the ETO, including (though not limited to) the possibility of introducing zebra crossings in the immediate vicinity of the school, as well as increasing the number of traffic wardens, yellow lines, ‘do not stop’ signages and traffic management personnel – such as school crossing patrols – outside of the school.”
Gibbons said the parents were disappointed that yet more money would be spent on wardens and zebra crossings after the removal a working scheme.