Trans­port ser­vice ‘bleed­ing cash’ Coun­cil’s school travel cri­sis could be ‘straw that breaks camel’s back’

Birmingham Post - - NEWS - Carl Jack­son Lo­cal Democ­racy Re­porter

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

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