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Conservatives make strange sudden cuts to school transport.

July 17, 2013 3:18 PM

On 9th July the Conservative Cabinet made a decision to cut back on School transport provision. This was a strange decision to make because:

1) The council is about to do a major review on spending.
It would have made more sense to have considered these elements as part of the spending review, rather than to cut them before-hand.
This would allow people to express their priorities on a range of County Council services.

2) The consultation on these cuts was decisively against.
Over 90% of respondents were against cutting transport for 16+ students. Cuts are never popular, but it's rare for one to get 90% opposition.

3) The Tories know exactly how unpopular this decision is.
They originally proposed it in February 2012, but there was such an outcry that they withdrew the proposal that May. It was absent from this year's budget too, only to suddenly re-appear after the elections. If they weren't going to do it before the elections, why suddenly change their mind now?

There were a number of objections to these proposals. Two students from Beauchamp College addressed councillors scrutinising these proposals as to why these cuts may prevent future young people from accessing further education. They gave an articulate and well thought out arguments against the proposals. The unfortunate response from a Tory councillor was to say that back in "his day", young lads in the village who wanted work or education moved to the city. Was he seriously suggesting that 16 years old should move to the city to study at college or do their A Levels? How would it be paid for?

The Conservatives claim that it's necessary to make this decision now to reduce uncertainty and to give parents as much notice of the changing circumstances as possible. If so, why did they delay this decision? Why weren't they willing to make this commitment before the May elections when they asking for our votes?

We made a submission to cabinet, expressing our concerns over how they are handling this:

The Liberal Democrat Group questions why school transport is being treated differently to other services provided by the County Council given that a major public consultation exercise is due to take place over the summer in which residents will be able to express a view about the total amount of money the Council has to save over the next 4 years.

Whilst it is understood that making a decision now will enable parents to be given 12 months notice of the changes to policy and charging taking effect, it needs to be remembered that the Cabinet already delayed these changes in May 2012 with the consequent loss of income to the Council. No consideration was given at the time as to how the loss of budgeted income would be found within the MTFS, however, this resulted in a net overspend of only £0.2m according to the Provisional Revenue Outturn. The Liberal Democrat Group therefore suggests that these changes should be deferred pending the wider consultation on the total savings which need to found so that people will be able to see the full picture and decide what priority they wish to give to school transport.

In respect of 16+ transport to colleagues and sixth forms we note the very high levels of objection to removing the subsidy completely (90% of respondents disagreed). These results are amongst the highest level of opposition to increased charging or service reductions we can recall and in the light of these responses the Cabinet should listen to what people are saying and demonstrate a willingness to amend the proposals. Simply ignoring these conclusions will undermine the value of future consultations; people will ask what is the point of responding if the Council takes no notice?

During the debate at the Scrutiny Commission it was explained that the proposed charging policy would, over time, lead to the County Council making a surplus from fare paying places due to the different costs involved in providing transport to Denominational Schools. We believe it would be unacceptable for the Council to make a surplus out of transporting children and young people to school and if the Cabinet insists on implementing these increased charges it must not result in a profit to the Council.

A consequence of this policy change is likely to mean more parents driving their children to school in order to avoid paying the charges. The road network in Leicestershire is already at its most congested during the morning travel to school period and these proposals will only make the problem worse. Furthermore they would seem to be in conflict with the objectives of the Local Transport Plan.

In conclusion, this is not the right time to be introducing such high charges when many hard working Leicestershire families are already finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Simon Galton

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group