The £600 transport charge for post-16 students in Northumberland is days away from being axed, but it continues to cause fallout between political opponents on the county council.
On Tuesday (May 8), the council’s cabinet is due to approve the Conservatives’ new policy, which will provide free transport for Northumberland residents travelling to a full-time course at their ‘nearest appropriate provider’, although a £50 administration fee will be payable (with some exceptions).
The current policy where students have to pay £600 was introduced by the previous Labour administration for the 2014-15 academic year in the face of protests, particularly from rural areas of the county.
At Wednesday’s (May 2) annual meeting of the council, Coun Ian Hutchinson called on Labour leader Grant Davey to apologise for his comments at the previous meeting that ‘the charges are probably great for the rich people in the countryside who can afford to cart their kids off to school’.
Coun Davey said he would not apologise and later in the meeting, he explained that this was because ‘you are not protecting those on the edge of affordability’ from the £50 charge (students from low-income backgrounds are exempt).
Conservative and council leader Peter Jackson said: “Your solution to that would be to strip the free post-16 transport scheme and bring back in a £600-a-year teenage tax. It’s just extraordinary, I think most people would call that slightly mad.”
Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate resources, added: “If you don’t qualify (for free transport), you get the £50 back.”
But Coun Davey said: “The reason for the £600 charge from the Labour group was nothing to do with affordability, it was the fact the system was being abused. It was a wide-open system where people were travelling as far south as Durham and as far north as Edinburgh on public transport.
“The changeover to the £600 scheme didn’t stop young people getting to their local schools, it was about expanding the number of Sixth Form pupils who travelled to their local school.
“The £50 scheme has some limits on its travel, but it still will be the nearest school for your course and your course could be chosen anywhere, it’s a very, very poor scheme and the families who don’t want their children to go to their local schools, who want to go to better schools, who I was describing in the first place last time, will be able to pay that £50.”
Coun Wayne Daley, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “I’ve got a Labour group leader standing up criticising us for imposing an administration charge of £25 a year instead of their scheme of £600. It was the biggest teenage tax this country has ever seen. You were taxing young people out of education.”
Responding, Coun Davey said: “The two schemes are completely different. One scheme was to help the high schools in the countryside retain their older young people, the second part of it was that the actual £600 scheme was to try to force people to go to their local school.
“This new scheme will be exactly the same as the old scheme, the £50 charge is an element of it, but you will have massive costs which will be a burden on the council. In the main, the people who will benefit will be wealthier because the poorer people won’t be able to pay the £50, in the same way they couldn’t pay the £600 so they went to their local school.”
Having the final word, Coun Oliver said he agreed that the schemes were entirely different – ‘one’s £600 a year and the other’s £25 a year’.
The new post-16 transport policy was also discussed at today’s (Thursday, May 3) meeting of the council’s family and children’s services committee, where Coun Daley said: “I’m delighted that we made a commitment to remove this charge when we came into office, we have gone through the statutory process and the consultation has overwhelmingly supported its removal.”
Alan Hodgson, a co-opted member who is not a councillor, raised concerns that the policy only seems to allow free transport to the nearest provider of A-Levels, not the nearest provider of the specific A-Levels a pupil wishes to study, putting rural students at a disadvantage to those in Newcastle, for example.
But Andy Johnson, the council’s departing director of education, said that he didn’t see how you could directly link transport policy with A-Level choices, while highlighting that there is flexibility within the criteria to allow for individual cases to be decided on their own merits.
The removal of the charge will cost £2.2million over the next two years, but this will come from the local services budget, not the schools pot.
Ben O'Connell , Local Democracy Reporting Service