County council told to expect bus companies to rebuff new contract offers

Essex County Council (ECC) should expect bus companies to rebuff an offer to extend transport contracts based upon a zero per cent increase.

A total of 90 contracts expiring in July 2020 have been identified as suitable for extension for one year, based upon a zero price increase.

The conditions of these contracts allow for such an extension, but this would mean that the contracts would continue to be operated by the current contractor at the existing operating price.

The transport companies will be allowed to enter negotiations to aim for different terms if they wish.

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday February 25 councillors, particularly Ray Gooding the cabinet member with responsibility for school transport, were issued with a blunt appraisal of what ECC might expect to hear in reply to its offer to extend contracts without a price increase.

Cllr Chris Pond said: “If I was a transport operator I would say not on your nelly, chum.

“What does the cabinet member estimate will be the cost of extra payment either for pollution compliant vehicles or for new contracts at a higher price?”

Essex County Council’s climate change credentials had already been questioned before the council meeting after new school bus figures showed 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 – a drop of 12 per cent  – was saved.

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 empirical 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 in the 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.

The council’s separate figures showed in 2018/19 the amount it has spent on bus contracts 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.

Leader of the ECC’s Lib Dem group, Cllr Mike Mackrory, said: “Why is it that there is nothing in the report that requires the successful tenderer to have low emission written in the contact?

“Yes, there will be a financial cost but if this council is serious about the climate change emergency it really ought to be putting its own house in order first.”

Cllr Gooding said: “We do need to make sure what is a growing budget, and quite significantly, is managed adequately.

“But that is not to say that while reprocuring these contracts we don’t go through the process in terms of the other issues very closely.

“Clearly the matter of climate change and the extension of the existing services and the use of elderly buses is driven partly by the fact that this is such a disparate purchase.

“Every year we have to buy for a new cohort of children, with new routes to new places to meet a statutory responsibility.

“And in that it is a difficult process. The issues around making sure we can move to get the vehicles to a much better standard is part of that procurement process.

“To signal a cost that is available to the market would slightly fetter the negotiations.

“We need to allow the officers to procure on the basis we get the best for the least.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter