Transport service ‘bleeding cash’ Council’s school travel crisis could be ‘straw that breaks camel’s back’
BIRMINGHAM City Council’s under-fire school transport service is ‘bleeding’ money – leaving the cash-strapped authority facing a £3.5 million black hole.
It has prompted fears it could be the tipping point for the authority itself which needs to save about £100 million in less than 18 months.
The ‘travel assist’ service provides transport such as minibuses, taxis and chaperones to more than 4,200 children every day as well as over 1,500 bus basses.
But a rise in demand has put it under ‘ enormous strain’ and it now faces a review which will push children towards more ‘independent travel’.
The council was heavily criticised last month when it axed a chaperone on the bus to Wilson Stuart School in Erdington.
The move caused alarm among parents of children with special educational needs, but the authority said it only had a finite number of guides and they had to prioritise what routes they were used on.
But now the service has prompted concerns among council finance chiefs.
Travel assist was allocated a £18.4 million budget this year but members of the resources scrutiny committee were told that it was facing £2.2 million ‘base budget pressures’ on top of £1.3 million of ‘nonachievement savings’.
Cllr Ewan Mackey (Cons, Sutton Roughley) said: “I don’t feel I can let travel assist go. While this may fall under another committee, the fact it is bleeding cash falls under us as well. What is it that is the problem here?”
Former deputy council leader Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem, Sheldon) has previously compared the issues with travel assist to ‘trying to hold a bar of soap in the bath’.
He said: “When I was in the hot seat we tried to grapple with the problem. I was unimpressed with the officers, there wasn’t a real grasp of the situation and understanding where all of the money was going and how we could mitigate the expenditure.”
Whilst conceding it was an ‘emotive’ issue, Cllr Tilsley added: “To try and save £3.5 million for the rest of the year is impossible.
“It will either come out of reserves or carry over. It is doubling up all of the time. If Birmingham doesn’t deal with it, it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Steve Powell, assistant director for corporate finance, admitted the overspend in travel assist was “cause for major concern” and said the authority was trying to find other ways to compensate for it.
A COUNCIL spokeswoman said: “The budget pressure is due to the increasing demand for the service.
“We have 4,250 children who we assist via minibus and taxi, across 600 routes, (if you include bus passes it is 6,000) the largest travel assist operation in the country.
“Some children on a route with guides had their travel plans reviewed, and some were found to not need a guide.
“We have a finite number of guides and so they have to be placed with a child where there is assessed need.
“We have had nine queries about why their child no longer needed a guide. In order to give further reassurance we offered an additional independent occupational therapy assessment – three took up that offer, five are now travelling on non-guided routes (one had a guide reinstated because they were very young).” JACK Reeve, aged 15, who suffers from cerebral palsy, sensorineural hearing problems, learning difficulties and asthma, has depended on a travel chaperone since he was three.
But his mother Heidi Wells has refused to put him on a bus since the chaperone was stopped by the council and is now having to spend more money transporting him herself, while Jack is having to wait behind on his own after school until she gets there from picking her younger son up from a different school.
Mrs Wells is still battling to get the chaperone reinstated and said: “It is costing me more money, I have never had to fill my car up so much. But it is more the impact this is having on Jack and us as a family.
“There does not seem any rhyme or reason to what the council is doing. It’s like we’ve been plonked in a maze with no way out.”
Mary Riddell said a chaperone was removed only to be reinstated for her nine-year-old daughter Dakota, who suffers from cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning delay.
But she added the transport arrangements were still ‘unacceptable’ saying Dakota’s health problems had worsened due to the ‘ridiculous’ length of her journey time.
More than 330 additional families successfully applied to the council for transport last year.
>Jack Reeve, aged 15, (right) who has cerebral palsy has lost his bus chaperone to school. He is pictured with his mother, Heidi Wells (second from right) and, Dakota Riddell, aged nine, who also lost her chaperone, and her mother Mary