Moving the Goalposts: Suffolk’s School Transport proposals

This week Suffolk’s cabinet decided to enter into formal consultation on  worrying changes to our current Suffolk Home to School Transport arrangements.

These changes are profound.  Most importantly,  the proposal is that  free travel will only be provided where a qualifying school student attends their nearest school. Currently it is available for qualifying students attending their catchment school, nearest school, or transport priority area. Between the schools organisation review and the the advent of free schools, these may be three different schools in some areas. ‘Not fair’, according to the administration who oversaw this chaos.

Such a decision  will impact specifically on rural families, and those from families with single parents, limited incomes and few travel choices. Additionally, the last shreds of subsidised travel for 16-18 year olds will no longer be provided.

If, after the consultation, the decision were made to adopt the proposal, it would be implemented for all students across Suffolk with effect from September 2019, without consideration for decisions made in good faith by families before this date.

The intention is to make savings. However the preconsultation has been unable  to identify any specific proposals or indeed the savings that might be intended to be made.

And why are these changes being made? Simply, Suffolk can’t afford  the transport we have provided up till now. Costs  – we are told sorrowfully- have gone up.  But gosh,  not our Council tax – which the leader is so proud of having not raised for seven, yes SEVEN, years.   No wonder the county  can’t afford to provide the transport that rural Suffolk students need!

To add insult to injury the proposals are being  cynically marketed as “unlocking capacity to benefit Suffolk residents, not just the small proportion of school children” because the abolition of school-specific bus services ‘may’ allow private companies to come forward to offer services! (Not that any have to date. That was another question I asked.)

So, having comprehensively annihilated scheduled rural bus services (because of the cost), Suffolk County council now complains that it has to rely on expensive closed buses and taxis to meet its statutory obligations to the students of this county – and expresses surprise that this provision is not open to the Suffolk residents it deprived of buses in the first place.

I think the expression is No shit, Sherlock.

 Why on earth, ( I asked the Cabinet)  having previously stopped funding various public and community bus services across the county on the grounds that they were ‘not financially viable’,  are you now contending that there will be a market solution to the school transport budget problem?

Because we are getting rid of the closed buses  that we replaced the cancelled scheduled services with“, was the Topsy Turveyland reply. You couldn’t make it up…

The young people of Suffolk are worth investment.  Instead of further penalising rural residents by moving the goalposts  once again, I call on Suffolk County Council to make proper provision for the  rural families of this county by once again subsidising  rural bus services, retaining current Home School travel provision, and  funding student travel right up to the new de facto statutory school age  of 18 out of our ever-increasing reserves.

You will be pleased to hear the LibDem, Green and Independent Group has ‘called in’ this Cabinet decision, which means it will now have to go to the Scrutiny Committee to be  investigated properly before it can be implemented.

Watch this space.

Update: Im glad to tell you that the LDGI Group call-in  (proposed by LibDem Councillor Penny Otton , and seconded by Green Councillor  Andrew Stringer) was successful. Cllrs Otton  and Stringer persuaded Scrutiny of the justice of their argument – citing Essex where the same proposals ended in very little actual savings. The proposals now have to be re-examined by Cabinet

 

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