Flintshire Council looks set to u-turn on plans to scrap free transport for college and sixth form students
A local authority looks set to perform a u-turn on plans to scrap free transport for hundreds of college and sixth form students.
Senior councillors in Flintshire approved the introduction of a charge of up to £450 a year at a meeting held last summer.
The council currently provides free travel for 2,000 youngsters to their nearest place of education, but is one of few left in Wales still providing the discretionary service at a cost of around £860,000 a year.
The Labour administration had hoped to save money by only providing the complimentary service for students who receive free school meals from September.
However, council leader Ian Roberts now looks set to reconsider the decision in light of new legislation introduced by the UK Government.
Details of Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) were made public last August and prevent charging for places on buses and coaches which are not fully accessible for disabled people.
Claire Homard, chief officer for education, said the vehicles used by the authority would be in contravention of the rules.
In a report, she said: “It had been the council’s intention to introduce the charge from September 2020 – the regulations coming into effect from 2021 would mean that this could only be levied for one academic year.
“The council will have to remove the charge completely by September 2021 anyway or it will be in breach of PSVAR as the vehicles used are not compliant.
“The council also needs to consider whether it is appropriate to introduce a charge for one year only with all the administrative functions required to manage this process, for it to be ceased one year later.
“This consideration is complicated by the current emergency situation and the uncertainty of when schools will reopen and how e.g. a possible phased approach.”
She added: “Cabinet had reluctantly introduced this charge because of its strong commitment to post 16 learning and it had been a budget necessity.
“The review of this policy decision and the recommendation to reverse it has been triggered by changes in legislation.”
The council’s budget for 2020/21 currently includes an expected extra income of £449,000 from the charges.
Ms Homard said the impact on its finances would be closer to £770,000 for a full financial year.
In order to mitigate the effect of the proposed reversal, the authority has held talks to find alternative funding with Coleg Cambria, which has campuses in Deeside and Northop.
Ms Homard said: “The college fully understood the reality of the financial position facing the council that had resulted in the policy decision to charge.
“The governing body of Coleg Cambria were considering options such as reimbursing students individually from September 2020 to offset this transport charge.
“In the spirit of strong local partnership a creative solution jointly negotiated where Coleg Cambria agreed to pass the funding it was earmarking for reimbursing students directly to the council.
“This contribution would give significant mitigation to the current open in-year risk budget risk on school transport costs.”
Cllr Roberts, who is the council’s cabinet member for education, will consider whether to approve the scrapping of fees next Tuesday .
During the coronavirus crisis, senior councillors have been given the authority to make urgent decisions on their own.
Although the charges look set to be removed for the time being, Ms Homard said they could be reintroduced at a later date due to financial pressures.
Liam Randall – Local Democracy Reporter (more here).
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