Free School vs. Academy: More school places in Hammersmith & Fulham

The opening of two secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham will offer local parents a choice of two widely differing philosophies of education as well as cutting the proportion of local children who have to go to school outside the borough.

Before 2011, fewer than 50 per cent of children went in-borough state secondary schools. The opening of the West London Free School (WLFS) will provide a steady increase in school places, as it accepting 120 students a year for five years as the school expands to fill its year groups.

But this has brought criticism from parents that the council is relying on the private-voluntary sector to provide extra places.

WLFS, which adopts an education for education’s sake viewpoint and offers a classical liberal curriculum, was set up in response to parental demand for more choice and aims to drive up standards for all young people, regardless of background.  It is currently based at a temporary site but plans to move to a renovated old school building on Glenthorne Road – near Latymer Upper School.

The journalist and author Toby Young, who co-founded the school, told the Hammersmith and Fulham Files: “We believe that you can provide a classical liberal education to a genuinely comprehensive group of children provided it’s taught in the right way. We call it a grammar school for all which, incidentally, is how the Labour Party described comprehensives in its 1964 manifesto.”

The free school will be run on markedly different lines from the other newcomer, Hammersmith Academy  (HA), which is funded by central government and  aims to give its pupils skills to help them find jobs and gives priority to teaching information technology. The academy was set up under the Partnership for Schools programme and has sponsorship from the Worshipful Company of Mercers and the Information Technologists Company which enabled a new purpose-built building with state of the art facilities to be completed before the September opening. Headmaster Gary Kynaston has said: “We’re exploring different aspects of learning to inspire students to improve ability, skills and talents.”

 Mr Kynaston has said that HA offers “as wide a curriculum as possible using different forms of media and approaches to learning, with a focus on personal development”.

The emphasis is different at WLFS. Mr Young said: “The thinking [behind a wider curriculum] was that it would be unrealistic to expect children of all abilities and from all backgrounds to tackle an academically rigorous curriculum and that they should put something more accessible and ‘inclusive’ in place. We don’t believe this at the WLFS.”  The WLFS headmaster, Thomas Packer, shares this view and plans to give priority to traditional subjects.

The free school was set up over about two years. When it moves to its new site it will resemble an old private school. HA, with its modern infrastructure, has taken five years to complete and cost £34 million to set up, compared with an estimated £15 million spent on WLFS. The different settings derive from the separate visions – as Mr Kynaston has said, to “develop core skills using creative media and IT” would not be suited the old grammar school setting that WLFS plans to move into.

Caroline Needham, the council’s shadow cabinet member for education, said: “West London Free School has gained a lot of limelight in the press, but Hammersmith Academy… is quietly blossoming.” She adds that the academy is “an example of what can be done with investment.” But she admits that their differing philosophies make it is hard to compare the two schools:  “It’s still early in the school year and the schools are very different. You can’t say which is better.”

But the choice between a classical liberal and a modern vocational style of education has proved popular with parents and both schools were oversubscribed in September.  At HA there were 632 applications for 240 places and at WLFS there were almost 500 applications for the 120 places.

The intorduction of WLFS and HA create a slight increase in the number of pupil places in H&F

This demand may show that there are still not enough local school spaces in Hammersmith and Fulham. Asked about the shortages in school places, Mr Young said: “[The] situation will get significantly worse next year and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a national political scandal.”

Councillor Needham criticises the council for relying on free schools to make up the shortfall at no cost. She said “The borough needs new schools, currently the council is relying on the initiative of the free school founders – but this is not feasible in the long term.”

Ark Conway Primary Academy, part of the Ark Schools Charity, which also opened this September, is another free school offering an additional 30 places a year to children aged between four and eleven.

But Helen Binmore, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, rejects claims that it is relying on the free school initiative. She said: “We have just announced we have £15 million to spend on school improvement next year and we’ve just created more classes in our schools so that we can accommodate all children.” She has also said that “children do not need to go outside the borough to get a top quality education, especially as our local schools are constantly improving”.

However critics point out that this funding is solely for improvements, not new schools.

Former council leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, has spoken of the need for £55 million spending cuts over the next four years and parents have expressed concerns about cuts to the education budget. But Councillor Greenhalgh has replied: “We will be tough but fair. It is about delivering more for less, [driving] out needless cost while improving school standards.”

Paving the way for the death of social housing

Hammersmith and Fulham Council has noble intentions. Its regeneration plans focus on building mixed communities to reduce the borough’s extremes of rich and poor; it has promised to build more homes and to create “a ladder of housing opportunity for all.” But in reality, it is creating a borough that looks more like an exclusive gentleman’s club, but remains unaffordable to the majority. At worse, it may set a precedent that kills off council housing in other boroughs.

The council website proudly announces that it has helped to house a total of 58 families in the last year. That was less than half the number housed in previous year, and this in a borough that has more than 10,000 people waiting for a home.

Report on social housing reform co-authored by Stephen Greenhalgh

The former council leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, has said that he believes council tenants are “locked into a culture of dependency and expectancy.” Council estates, he argues, create “social ghettos” that cause many social ills such as crime and perpetuate a cycle of deprivation. “Social housing,” he says, “has become welfare housing.”

Councillor Andrew Johnson, the council cabinet member for housing, supports this view. He says: “Council homes are a springboard, not a destination.” He wants to help those “who make an effort and penalise those who simply cannot be bothered”.

Councillor Greenhalgh has two solutions. The first is to increase the number of affordable rented homes in the borough, and the second is to try to increase home ownership. To reduce the cost to council-tax payers, he wants to offer “a hand up, not a hand out,” and minimise the number of people on housing benefits.

But the definition of an affordable rent has been changed. Accordindefinitionsg to the Affordable Housing Framework introduced this year by Grant Shapps MP, the Housing Minister: “Providers will be expected to deliver a range of rents across their development proposals from homes let at target rents up to a maximum of 80 per cent of the market rent. In order to maximise the number of new homes, it is expected that most will be let at, or close to, the 80 per cent limit.” The Homes and Communities Agency, the national homes and regeneration agency for England, has also adopted this definition.

Hammersmith and Fulham is the fourth most expensive borough in the country, both to rent and to buy property. New developments will not include any more council housing, but will instead provide a large number of properties for rent at the 80 per cent level. That offers little opportunity for current residents on lower incomes to afford to live in the borough independently. Coupled with the Government’s benefit cap, large numbers of people may be forced out of the area.

Nick Raynsford, the Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich and a former Housing Minister and Director for the housing charity Shelter, describes this policy as an “Orwellian distortion of the truth.” The rise in affordable rent will inevitably force up the number of households requiring housing benefits, he says.

“I can think of no better way of creating dependency than forcing rents up – it is the worst possible way to tackle it. The merit of having social housing at well below market rates, is that it allows a large proportion of lower income households to live without benefit dependency.

“The consequences of this programme will be a serious shortfall of housing. It will exacerbate deprivation, homelessness and overcrowding. It may also mean that lower income households are priced out of affluent areas entirely.”

The assumption that people who need council homes are work-shy opportunists is leading the council to overlook its working population. A recent report in a Guardian Datablog, showed the minimum salary a person would need to be able to meet the  new affordable rent levels in every borough in England. For a one-bedroom flat in Hammersmith and Fulham  they would need an income above  £37,000 a year. The average income in the borough is £30,000.

Chart showing homes are unaffordable to the majority on average salaries for the borough

The new Localism Bill poses further problems. It devolves many powers back to local governments. Among the provisions for housing it states that local authorities will be able to limit those  who can apply for social
housing in their areas. They would therefore, be able to set their own eligibility criteria.

“It has been ill thought out,” Mr Raynsford says, ‘The most significant changes relate to the allocation of housing, which could give councils wider discretion to discriminate against certain groups of people.”

The Bill would also allow the council to rely more on the private sector to house those  in need but  Mr Raynsford points out that parts of the private market are poor quality and in poor condition.

Cllr. Greenhalgh supports selling  council homes to increase home ownership – and not just to tenants. In a Localis think-tank report that he co-wrote in 2009, he proposed that vacant homes be sold off. The document entitled Principles for Housing Reform, suggests the “strategic open market sales of void properties either directly or by transferring ownership to a partner who will then sell on.” The council is cashing in, instead of rehousing some of the thousands on its waiting list.

Furthermore, attractive 50 per cent discounts are offered to council tenants to buy their home. This cuts further the amount of council housing available. Once sold, the homes will not be replaced.

Inevitably, issues such as housing are heavily politicised. Opposition councillors such as Stephen Cowan have been quick to compare this to the Shirley Porter “Homes for Votes” scandal of the 1980s in that it will force natural Labour voters out of the borough. But Mr Greenhalgh appears to shows little concern that those on lower incomes may be priced out of the area.

The changes in the definition of affordable rents allow councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham, pretend that homes are affordable when they are not. Far from being a cure for the “social ills of social housing”, the changes will not fulfill either of the council’s aims – to build mixed communities and cut reliance on benefits. Instead it will cause a mass migration of lower-income households from a borough that already has a far lower percentage of council tenants than any other in London.  The result will be a monolithic, inner London zone, exclusive to high earners. It is better compared to a sweeping broom clearing the area of the poor, than a “ladder of opportunity for all.”





The Super Sewer

When the heavens open and the rain falls, the genius of London’s Victorian subterranean engineering saves its streets from being flooded with raw sewerage. The sewers, unable to cope with their aquatic burden, are assisted by Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s interceptors, which spring into action and divert the excess rainwater that floods the combined sewers and drains, into the river Thames.

The 13,000-mile network designed by Bazalgette helped to expel cholera and eliminate the stench London had become famous for. However, three times as many people live in London now and there is less vegetation to soak up rain; resulting in 39million cubic metres of sewage spilling into the Thames with the rainwater each year. In1860s London this was not a major issue as the interceptors were only used a few times a year, the Thames was biologically dead and the knowledge of pathogenic microorganisms was still in its infancy.

The combined sewer overflow spills out on average once a week, breaching EU rules. From 2000 to 2005 the Thames Tideway Strategic Study Steering Group studied how best to resolve this problem and proposed a full-length tunnel from Hammersmith to Beckton. In 2006 the European Commission initiated environmental violation proceedings against the UK. In 2007 the government instructed Thames Water to construct a full-length tunnel from Hammersmith to Beckton at an estimated cost of about £2bn, to solve the problem. Since then the total estimated cost has increased to about £4.1bn.

Thames Tunnel Film (2011) from Thames Tunnel on Vimeo.

The project, officially called the Thames Tideway Tunnel, but widely known as the Super Sewer is controversial.

For residents of Fulham the recent naming of Carnwath road as the preferred site for the main drill shaft for the Super Sewer has left them wondering ‘why us, why here’? If the project goes ahead, Carnworth road, the size of six football pitches will be home to a drill wider than three London buses operating 24 hours per day for at least 7 years.

The site, whilst designated by Thames Water Brownfield is home to many residents in flats and houses who overlook the wharf where construction will take place. There is also a small business park that employs 130 people, a gym, a pub and river walk. There are two nursery schools, five primary schools and one secondary school within 500 metres and a further 15,000 residents and 2,200 businesses all within 1,500 metres of the site. Clearly for them, the project is not welcome news.

Vibration, noise, pollution, foul odours and traffic problems are the major concerns that has led to a staunch campaign against Thames Water’s plans by residents and local politicians since the announcement.

Cllr Ali de Lisle, from Sands End Ward in Fulham expressed concern that “a tunnel bigger than the Channel Tunnel [will have] its entrance off a small side road in a highly residential area of South Fulham.”

Carnwath road was not Thames Water’s first choice for the site for the drive shaft. In December last year a report was published by Thames Water titled; “Barn Elms Sports Ground – How We Chose the Preferred Site”. The report states on page 3 that “the sites identified at Carnwarth Road even if used together, were considered to be too small to be used as a main tunnel drive site” it goes onto say on page 4 “we chose Barn Elms because there were no suitable sites in Wandsworth Bridge from which to drive the tunnel.” In March this year Thames Water did a huge U-turn. Carnwarth Road was reconsidered to be big enough to be the ‘main drive site’ for the Super Sewer.

The move from barn Elms to Carnwath road will add £500 million to the estimated cost of the project.

“Barn Elms was the only place that could fit us in until we changed our tunneling strategy,” said Phil Stride, Head of London Tideway Tunnels. The Carnwath road site will enable Thames Water to move significantly more of the soil away by boat – which will be better for health and safety,” Mr Stride explained further.

Hammersmith and Fulham Council are opposed to the project and have been heavily lobbying Thames Water against the use of Carnworth road. Along with 4 other London boroughs they commissioned a report by Lord Selbourne. The report concluded that the river could be made cleaner and obligations to meet EU directives on water quality without building the super sewer.

“Our forensic analysis shows there is a substantial body of evidence pointing to the fact that there is a smarter way to make the River Thames cleaner. A shorter tunnel, combined with green infrastructure solutions that are built up incrementally in the medium to long term, would be both compliant with EU directives and less costly and disruptive to Londoners. These alternatives require further study.” Said Lord Selbourne in his report.

Mr Stride disagrees with the “feasibility” of the conclusions drawn by the Selbourne Report, adding, “it’s not realistic and there’s nothing new in it.”

The project is estimated to cost Thames water customers £70-80 per year extra on top of their normal bills, “for the foreseeable future,” Thames Water have said.

A report out on Tuesday called ‘Why does London need the Thames Tunnel?’ claims the major new sewer will be a huge boost for the capital’s economy.

The report, which is backed by business organisation ‘London First’ and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was listed in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement as one of the country’s top 40 most important infrastructure projects According to Thames Water tthe proposed tunnel is expected to directly create over 4,000 jobs at the peak of its planned seven-year construction phase.

It has not yet been decided who will finance and deliver the project, the Thames Water-led team developing the project has said that it’s “clear on the need to set contractors a minimum 20% threshold for the use of local labour.”

The project has strong political support. London mayor Boris Johnson said in an article in the Daily Telegraph, “this new super-sewer is the right thing to do for the environment – and it is above all the right kind of thing to do for a country still struggling to get back to growth.” Chancellor George Osborne has also shown his support by including the project on a list of infrastructure projects that will be underwritten by the government.

“There’s no point spending £5 billion and pushing many Londoners into water poverty if there’s a smarter and a cheaper way,” said Fulham and Hammersmith Council Leader Stephen Greenhalgh.

Thames Water has a vested interest in pushing through the “gold-plated” scheme, as Cllr Greenhalgh has called it.

“They have chosen to ignore the water industry experts who say there are alternative ways to improve the cleanliness of the river without the huge environmental, social and economic costs,” a spokesperson for Hammersmith and Fulham Council claimed.

Chris Binnie, who worked for Thames Water as head of the original steering committee and created the original sewer plans, presented evidence to the Selbourne Commission. He argued that the whole basis for the project was out of date and needed to be revisited. He also appointed to the way in which the water industry is financed through international borrowing, incentivises Thames Water to build infrastructure whether it is needed or not, because the more they borrow the more money they will make.

Mr Stride refuted this claim and emphasised that no decisions on funding had been made and this assertion that Thames Water was only interested in money is incorrect.

Since the consultation period ended in February residents fighting the super sewer, in Fulham as well as other proposed sites across London where construction will take place, suffered two serious set backs. Firstly Government officials banned Hammersmith and Fulham Council from giving planning permission to housing projects in and around Carnwath Road, the site of one of three main shafts needed to construct the tunnel. Secondly, in March, a new bill had a second unopposed reading in the House of Commons that allows the Government to underwrite major water projects such as the Super Sewer.