Essex County Council’s climate change credentials have been questioned after new school bus figures show more children are abandoning school buses.
Between 2013 and 2019 the number of mainstream children travelling on school buses contracted by the council each day went down from 16,274 to 9,630 – a drop of 6,644, or 40 per cent.
In that time just £8,200 a day was saved – a drop of 12 per cent.
In the past year the number of children aged 11 to 16 transported by bus has gone down from 9,051 to 8,364 – even though the costs associated with this element have increased from £46,960 to £47,239 a day.
Although there is no impirical evidence that those children who used to take council-funded buses are now all being transported to school by car rather than privately funded buses, campaign group Essex Against School Transport Cuts estimates 600 extra cars are now on the roads morning and afternoon as a direct result of this policy.
In 2015 Essex County Council revised its school transport policy to become the first local education authority in the UK to abolish the right of children to free school transport to their catchment secondary schools if they live more than three miles away.
Instead pupils were offered free transport to their ‘nearest’ school, measured as the crow flies. The council also stopped free transport for young people in further education.
Lib Dem leader Mike Mackrory said the policy contradicts the council’s climate change policy – a £5million fund has been allocated to enable action on climate change and an independent commission to oversee the work.
Cllr Mackrory, who will be sitting on the council’s climate change commission, said he worried about how much will be achieved given that “everything the council does is determined by the accountants”.
He said: “I think the whole thrust of this climate change commission is going to try to get people amongst other things out of cars into more sustainable forms of transport.
“And for me by making people use their cars it flies in the face of what another part of the county council is trying to do.
“Some of us would have to question just how serious they are about this.
“Everything the council does is determined by the accountants. There is no cost benefit in terms of all the other things the county council should be doing.
“It’s what the bottom line is – that dictates everything.
“I am fearful this climate change commission is not going to be able to achieve anything really significant because the accountants are going to push back all the time.”
The council’s separate figures showed the amount it has spent on bus contracts has reached at least a six-year high of £138,000 a day, even though the total number of contracts has fallen to below 200 for the first time in six years.
Scott Wilson, of Essex Against School Transport Cuts, said it appears the council has diminished negotiating power with transport companies.
He said: “At the same time parents are withdrawing their children from the school transport system, because they want to stick with catchment schools, making it difficult for the council to predict demand and plan ahead to keep costs down.”
The council has said contract costs reflect the outcome of procurement processes carried out and market conditions.
A statement added: “There has been a substantial reduction in spend on both mainstream secondary and mainstream primary school transport between the 2011-12 financial year and the 2018-19 financial year. The respective policy changes have achieved both a fairer set of arrangements and financial savings.”
And although the cost of transporting 11-16 mainstream children has gone up in the past year, the council says any increase in costs reflect the changing market and contract prices relative to demand.
“The council’s statutory duty is to provide transport for eligible children under the law. Substantial reductions in spend on mainstream transport have been achieved over a number of years,” a spokesperson said.
She added: “There are a number of transport initiatives currently underway to address environmental concerns. It cannot be assumed a reduction in the number of students on contracted transport necessarily relates to an increase in car travel when many children may travel on the existing public transport network.
“The council is statutorily responsible for travel arrangements for eligible children – it has no similar statutory responsibility for children who are not eligible for taxpayer funded transport.”