No final decisions have yet been made about ending free post-16 transport for students accessing further education, Northumberland County Council has insisted.
Potential changes - including complete withdrawal of all discretionary travel provision, the introduction of a charge, or restricting provision of transport to the nearest educational establishment - were announced as part of the budget consultation process in December.
More detailed discussions on the way forward are now in progress and no formal plans are yet in place.
Any definitive changes to the current system will be subject to another period of public consultation.
Councillor Ian Swithenbank, policy board member for streetcare and environment said: “It’s important to say that no final decisions have been made and that we’re still looking at a range of options for post-16 transport in the county.
“Unlike most councils, Northumberland County Council currently pays to transport children to the nearest establishment that does the course they want, regardless of distance and many children are transported out of the county to do this. We also provide free travel to the nearest denominational school where evidence of faith is provided.
“Currently 3,600 students receive free travel which is an increase of more than 300% in student numbers in the last five years. We now provide free travel for 51% of Post 16 students and the cost of this has risen to £3.3m in 2013/14.”
The proposals are part of the council’s medium term financial plan which estimates that Northumberland will need to make savings of more than £130m between 2014-2018, of which £32.5m will come in the next financial year.
These savings are higher than originally expected following the Government’s 2013 Budget and other national spending decisions announced earlier in the year.
The level of savings may increase further in the long term because some of the projections are based on provisional figures by the government which could still change after the next general election.
The council is currently looking at a number of options which not only help address the Council’s budget deficit but also encourage and enable students to continue their post-16 studies at their local school.
Whatever proposals are adopted the council is keen to put measures in place which will offer protection to vulnerable groups including those students from low income backgrounds, students with special educational or medical needs as well as those students who are unable to access public transport.
Councillor Grant Davey, Leader of Northumberland County Council said: “The public sector is still facing major financial challenges and in Northumberland we are going to face significant efficiency savings in the coming years. We now know that in the next financial year we will need to save around £32.5m.
“Government policy means that over the next four years we will need to save more than £130m from the council’s budget which presents us with huge challenges. There’s no doubt that the decisions the government has made will have a real impact on people living in Northumberland.
“In making these savings we’re determined to protect front line services to the public as best we can and continue to invest in Northumberland and the local economy. We are working hard to come up with innovative solutions before presenting our final budget in February.
“We’re putting the final touches to the proposed budget but it’s clear that the government have placed a financial straightjacket on Northumberland County Council.
“We think that local people will see a below inflation rise in council tax as reasonable but we’re conscious that families across the county are finding it tough. We’ll be developing a cost of living package to help our residents and show everyone in Northumberland that this council is on their side.”