Merton Birth Rate On The Rise

Meeting date for controversial school expansion

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The birth rate in Merton is rising faster than anywhere in south west London, according to new figures released as a decision is due on a controversial school expansion.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says 3,521 children were born in the borough in 2010 - a 39% increase from 2002.

The figures were announced as a Merton council report into controversial proposals into the expansion of Dundonald Primary School has recommended the plans move onto the next stage.

The full report from Merton's Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny Panel was released on Thursday (September 8), and can be read here.

Meanwhile the ONS says figures across the country have risen, but significantly more so in London, and Merton has increased more than its neighbouring boroughs, including Lambeth, Sutton, Kingston and Richmond.

And the latest ONS figures will mean the existing planned expansion programme for schools will need to be reviewed further, according to the council.

Eighteen schools in the borough have already provided additional classes to help meet the demand, but plans to expand Dundonald School into a neighbouring park have met with some opposition.

The final decision will be made on the Dundonald School proposals, which will convert it from a one-form into a two-form entry school, but involve loss of part of Dundonald Recreation Ground, later this month after two stormy public meetings took place during the consultation period.

A special meeting will be held about the plans at the Civic Centre in Morden on Thursday September 15 at 7.15pm.

The Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny Panel will review the results of the consultation and discuss the proposals being put forward to cabinet before cabinet takes a decision on Monday September 19.

A council spokesman said the panel's report recommends the proposals move on to the next stage, including a further consultation on the preferred design option for expanding the school, before submitting a formal planning application to the council. 

It also recommends applying for a modification to the covenant on Dundonald Recreation Ground, and should the modification be agreed, proceeding to publication of formal proposals for the expansion of the school.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat campaigners have criticised the Labour-run authority, claiming it does not having a strategic plan which includes education. The Conservatives have said a new school should have been built in Gap Road, as they had planned when they ran the borough.

But Lorraine Maries, chairman of the Protect Dundonald Road campaign, said the additional places required by 2015 could be accommodated by the present round of expansions planned to 2014.

The campaign group has published five "major obstacles" to proceeding with the plans. In its Protect Dundonald Rec report it lists these as: The council misinterpreting the legal status of the recreation ground and its covenant; failing to consult properly; misrepresenting its policy on open spaces; failing to disclose information about alternative sites; the figures not supporting the need for expansion.

But Councillor Peter Walker, cabinet member for education, said: "This new data from ONS confirms the increase in demand for school places will continue to rise over the next four years. I am determined that we will provide good quality school places for these children.

"One of the major issues is to finance new school buildings and we are lobbying the government to provide more money for this unprecedented need."

Councillor Richard Hilton, Conservative Education Spokesman, said: "Merton Conservatives have repeatedly called for a new school to be built In the Borough and in fact set aside the money to build it, over £10.5 million.  

"Unfortunately the Labour administration and Councillor Walker have been in power for 18 months now and have done nothing to move these plans forward. These ONS figures show the issue is a longer term one and we again call on the administration to bring forward immediate plans for a new primary school. They also need to set out their plans for the knock on impact to secondary school places".

Diana Coman, from the Merton Lib Dems, said: "The latest birth rate figures highlight the urgent need for action on school places. Both Conservative and Labour administrations have failed the families of Merton by allowing educational land to be sold off.

"They failed to anticipate need, and in the face of evidence actually have no viable strategy. Schools should not have been sold off. Education land should have been protected and the first priority for local development plans should be schools."

The Lib Dems also said the scrutiny panel report placed "great weight" on the views of 42 parents of pre-school children who supported the scheme. They claimed of 267 local residents who responded to the scheme, 70% were "negative" towards it.

And Lorraine Maries said: "Taking 2002 as a base inflates this growth figure because there was actually a fall in the number of births in that year. It is more reasonable to look at the annual rate of increase and from 2009 to 2010 this is is 1.7% or just 59 babies! 

"I hope that this puts the Council's claims in perspective. Of the 59 babies born to Merton mothers in 2010, some will go to private school, others will leave the borough (and others arrive, no doubt) but only an additional 44 to 48 additional school places will be required in 2015 to meet demand, all of which can be accommodated by the present round of expansions planned to 2014."

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September 12, 2011