The Committee considered a Joint report of the Corporate Director of Children and Young People’s Services and Corporate Director of Regeneration, Economy and Growth which provided an opportunity for Members to provide views as part of the public consultation on proposals to transform Durham County Council’s Home to School Transport Service for Children and Young People.
The Service Manager, Children and Young People’s Services was in attendance to present the report and deliver a presentation that outlined the background to the consultation and set out the proposals for the consultation and the timeframe (for copy of report and presentation, see file of minutes).
In response to a question from Councillor Walton the Service Manager indicated that they were not aware which council had indicated that expenditure on SEND home to school transport was manageable as it was an anonymous survey.
Councillor Walton then asked if the eleven maintained schools were widespread, which the Service Manager confirmed was the case.
Councillor Walton referred to the increase in the charge for the spare seat and maintained capacity schemes and indicated that it cost £13.00 per week for a Go North East ticket for St Bede’s Catholic School, Lanchester and asked if there was scope to offer this to other services around the county.
The Integrated Passenger Transport Manager responded that this was a private arrangement between St Bede’s Catholic School and Go North East and indicated that this was a consultation exercise that proposes £2.80, and they welcomed feedback if Members thought that this was too high. Councillor Walton indicated that she knew that a service could be carried out for £13.00 at Lanchester.
Councillor Walton then referred to Priority 3 – Developing independence skills of young people and indicated that this could go wider and there may be opportunities within other services. She asked if there was an opportunity to have a passenger assistant taking a group of young people onto public transport. She then asked if the unsafe routes were in rural areas.
The Integrated Passenger Transport Manager responded that unsafe routes were across the county for a variety of reasons.
Councillor Walton indicated that capital improvements would be expensive, and those children would leave school in a few years so money would be invested, and she was not sure if this would be cost effective.
Councillor Walton then referred to Priority 5 - procurement approach and asked if there was an option to engage with schools to provide their own school transport or approach community groups to use their minibuses that would also support local groups.
The Head of Education and Skills indicated that he had spoken to Head Teachers at schools and some schools did run their own transport, but a number of schools were not big enough to offer this facility, but he would explore it further.
Councillor Walton indicated that paying parents mileage to transport their children to school could also be an option to be considered.
Councillor Mavin indicated that some special schools in other authorities use their own minibuses for school transport and asked if this happened in Durham.
The Head of Education and Skills responded that this was very limited in Durham, and this could be looked at as part of the consultation.
Councillor Mavin then referred to the single person transport and asked if parents felt that their child requires their own transport and escort due to challenging behaviour.
The Head of Education and Skills responded that they had this as a priority as they felt different authorities had different approaches to this and they knew other authorities their priority was group travel. There were aspects of the provision in terms of SEN places and offer where it may have to be a solution as children have to travel past their closest special school to achieve a place somewhere else.
Councill Mavin commented that you get a lot of pressure from parents who feel their child needs single transport but if you used school mini-buses and staff were familiar with the child that would make a difference.
The Head of Education and Skills responded that it was logistically driven and also parental preferences.
In response for a further question from Councillor Mavin, Members were advised that transport would be provided for children to attend Special Schools that were outside the authority, if that school provided the child’s needs but transport would not be provided if it was parental choice.
Councillor Varty commented that parents were having to pay for their own transport to keep their child in a particular school. She then referred to children using public transport that often gets cancelled. She indicated that she did not agree with the increase in the cost of travel.
The Head of Education and Skills responded that some families in a small village one family would be entitled to concessionary travel and another family would not be entitled so you would always have people saying that the scheme was not fair.
Councillor Deinali referred to the development of independence skills for young people with SEND and asked if children would be reviewed on a child-by-child basis. She also referred to the maintained scheme and asked if any research had been carried out on the impact upon the working poor. She then asked if parents wish to transport their own children who live in rural areas had any research been carried out on how this may impact on working parents in those areas. In terms of identifying unsafe routes for walking was there a particular distance that they were looking at.
The Head of Education and Skills responded on the independent travel and training and indicated that the authority was not as far ahead as other authorities and provided an example of one school who planned and built as part of their playground area crossings and road signs etc. to put children through independent travel experience. This was not necessarily about saving money it was a commitment to prepare young people for adult life.
The Service Manager referred to the question around needs and indicated that this would be the drive around anything they do around individual transport for children. They would look at each child talking to the school and parent and make the decision. With regard to transport in rural areas he was not aware of any research around the question raised but once the consultation had been completed, they would carry out a lot of detailed work.
The Head of Education and Skills indicated that the current scheme was a mileage scheme which was to the school and return but some authorities paid for both return journeys and they were trying to explore some of these inequalities.
The Service Manager responded that the scheme that the Head of Education and Skills alluded to was used where they did not have capacity to provide transport or there were high costs. The personal transport budget had a low uptake due to parents having to procure transport the same way as the authority and have the relevant insurance in place etc. and this must be cheaper than what the authority could provide.
Members were advised that if a route was over three miles, then transport would be provided and any unsafe walking routes transport would be provided.
In response to a further question from Councillor Deinali regarding consultation with children, Members were provided with details of the groups that had been consulted and the work done to get the message out.
Councillor Currah made some comments on the online consultation in particular that people naturally think of cuts and asked about the availability of taxis and if there was less competition.
The Integrated Passenger Transport Manager responded that they did not have problems procuring transport it was the increase in costs due to fuel, wages, costs of spares etc. which was having a compound effect and problems with recruitment which increases wages.
In response to a further question from Councillor Currah on maintaining capacity and the alternatives the Head of Education and Skills indicated that the consultation was to obtain views and part of the work would be to look at alternatives.
The Integrated Passenger Transport Manager stated that if the proposal were to go ahead, they would encourage commercial operators.
Councillor Currah asked if the personal budget was voluntary and was advised that this was not imposed and was up to parents to make the decision.
Councillor Jopling asked if the costs associated with implementing contracts was included within the £19.5 million.
The Head of Education and Skills responded that the £19.5 million was the available budget for 2022/23, £24.3 million was the actual spend that had taken into account contract inflation.
Councillor Jopling commented that they had 9000 children, and 1000 contracts so there must be something that could be done to streamline this to try and save money. She commended the use of community transport which already have all the regulations in place to transport children. She asked if they were using independent taxi companies or large taxi companies.
The Integrated Passenger Transport Manager advised that they used a mix of bus companies, independent and larger taxi companies.
Councillor Jopling suggested that this be looked at and if you had more than one taxi company in an area to use the one taxi company or the same bus provider as you would get a better deal if using a smaller number of companies as processing less contracts would save money.
The Head of Education and Skills advised that all points would be looked at as part of the work on the home to school transport programme and they had a work stream looking at the procurement for transport and looking at routes.
Councillor Mavin referred to personal budgets and that other authorities only charge for the time the child is in the vehicle so only pay for two journeys and not four and presumed Durham County Council did the same. Members were advised that this was the case, however there were a small number who were paid for all four journeys due to the costs associated with alternative transport.
Councillor Walton referred to the personal budgets and that parents needed to go through the same process of insurance etc. and asked if this could be streamlined to encourage more parents to take up this option. Members were advised that this was being looked at as part of the consultation.
The Chair referred to the use of community buses which was good and was aware of a scheme where the school raised money to purchase the minibuses, but the council maintained the buses and paid for the training. A member of staff would pick up the children, so the only costs were fuel. The minibus would then be used for activities during the day and would be back to take children home in the afternoon and asked if this could be considered.
The Head of Education and Skills indicated that they could look at all the options and commented that some children travelled to school on their own with an escort and then those children would then go to an activity in the minibus with other children and an escort and that would be fine. They needed to look at the ability of the children and the interaction of the children.
The Chair referred to voluntary drivers who were only paid a mileage which would be less than using current transport and asked if this could also be considered as an option.
The Head of Education and Skills advised that they would look at all these options as part of the consultation.
The Chair then referred to the increase in the cost of a seat to £2.80 and commented that this may be too much for some parents, due to the current cost of living.
The Integrated Passenger Transport Manager responded that it was a consultation exercise, and this was the proposal put forward and would look at the feedback. The increase to £2.80 was seen as a benchmark and a typical fare offered by a commercial firm, the current rate was extremely low in particular when benchmarked against other local authorities’ fares, but they could look at other fares.
The Head of Education and Skills advised that the £2.80 fare was not related to recovering the £0.5 million cost it was about a fair charge and that £2.80 would not cover costs.
Resolved: That the contents of the report and presentation be noted and the comments raised by the Committee be formulated into a formal response to the consultation.