Home to school transport fee increase challenge fails

File pic.

A challenge to North Yorkshire County Council’s plan to increase home-to-school transport charges for post-16 students has been rejected.

Upper Dales county councillor John Blackie, supported by three independent councillors and two Liberal Democrats, called in the decision to increase charges by £110 to an annual fee of £600.

The call-in was examined by the county council’s scrutiny committee.

They were scrutinising a decision made by the Conservative executive member for schools, Cllr Patrick Mulligan in consultation with Stuart Carlton, the director of education.

Cllr Blackie gave several reasons for the call-in, including the lack of consultation, and no advance warning as the new charge was due to be paid by parents ten days after it had been imposed.

He also said the increase was discriminatory as it hit most heavily on those communities furthest from the post 16 colleges and sixth forms, typically rural communities.  Those living nearer can usually find ways of avoiding paying the charge.

He added: “The increase of £110 is a huge imposition on already very tight household budgets, given average household incomes are substantially lower in rural areas whilst the cost of living is relatively higher.

“The proposed new charge of £600 a year could be unaffordable by many rural families, leading to their teenage children having to sacrifice their career opportunities for life by having to take a humdrum job locally which does not challenge their talents or skills.”

Cllr Blackie proposed there should be no increase at all, or if this was unacceptable, it should be phased at £25 per year over four years.

However, the scrutiny committee decided that the decision should not be re-visited and the new charge of £600 was passed.

At the scrutiny meeting, Cllr Mulligan said that the council has a responsibility to maintain strong financial management and ensure that all communities in the county can access the best possible services within the financial constraints that exist.

He added that the charges had to be increased but that it was important to note that there was still a subsidy in place of approximately £300 per person, per annum.

Stuart Carlton said that only a new policy would be consulted upon and not a change in fees.

Cllr Blackie said afterwards: “It was a very disappointing knee-jerk reaction to what was a set of compelling arguments asking for at least a chance to think again before imposing without consultation an extra £110 a year on the already stretched household budgets of those affected by the charge.

“Stuart Carlton entirely focused on the financial position of the directorate for education, ignoring all the other arguments, and his contribution smacked of it being engaged in a race to the bottom to charge the same as all other councils, despite North Yorkshire being unique as England’s most rural county council.

“He had no answer when put to him that Cumbria and Lancashire County Council, similar in rural nature to North Yorkshire, do not make a charge for post-16 transport”.

He added:  “This is simply a tax on living in the countryside.

“Sadly I fear there may not be many young families left soon in our rural communities, driven out by the lack of affordable housing, the lack of suitable employment, and the high cost of living. The future looks very bleak indeed.”