A motion calling for the suspension of the decision to axe free transport for 16 to 19-year-olds going to further education in Northumberland was voted down today, following four hours of debate.
The extraordinary meeting of Northumberland County Council had been called by the Conservatives following the cancellation of the July full-council meeting, at which campaigners against the cuts, which mean some students may have to pay £600 a year or public-transport costs, were planning to make their views known.
Parents, pupils and politicians gathered outside county hall in Morpeth ahead of the 9.30am meeting today to protest against the post-16 decision and a number took the opportunity to ask questions of the Labour administration during the meeting.
Council leader Grant Davey reiterated the reasons behind the policy board’s decision, which include the huge cuts the council must make, the drain of money from the county as students travel to colleges on Tyneside and the fact that funding changes and bursary-fund cash means schools and colleges can fund transport themselves.
He also pointed out that while the council charge will be £600, the actual cost is around £900 for an urban student and £1,100 in the rural areas and said the council couldn’t be seen to be favouring rural areas.
Around £1million is being left in the scheme to fund transport for young people with special educational needs or from low-income backgrounds and Coun Davey said one in five post-16 students will benefit from these parachute payments.
In proposing his motion, Coun Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives, said: “You can run but you can’t hide from the electorate and you can run but you can’t hide from all the parents that will be so badly affected by this policy.”
The motion, he added, was on three main points; the inadequate consultation, the implementation being a shambles and the money issue.
“It affects 1,750 people a year, which may not sound like much, but over 10 years that’s 17,500 young people and their families.”
There was much political finger-pointing at the meeting and Coun Davey accused the Tories of ‘grandstanding’ and whipping up fury – something which several other councillors and the parents objected to.
Coun Jeff Reid, the Lib Dem leader, backed the motion, saying changes should be delayed a year at least until the Government firms up plans as the new requirement for 16 to 18-year-olds to be in education, training or work come into force. “It’s a shame it’s been turned into a political circus,” he added.
But independent Coun Paul Kelly sided with the administration, saying: “Distributing largesse so other local authorities can benefit is foolish if our schools are going to suffer.”
The motion, which Steven Mason, the council’s head of paid service, once again warned members was not legal as only the policy board can review decisions made by the policy board, was voted down by 34 votes to 30.