Council bosses in Northumberland are seeking to retain free transport for students in post 16 education – but only those who learn in the county.
Labour leaders at Northumberland County Council last night revealed their preference amid consultation on the future of post 16 educational transport in the county.
Their stance was spelt out as Liberal Democrat opponents took their campaign for the retention of free transport to Westminster, with calls for a change in the law.
Transport charges for students aged 16 to 18 were scrapped by the Lib Dems when they ran the council in 2008.
However, as part of their proposed budget for 2014/15, Labour leaders announced they were considering a number of options relating to post 16 transport, including the introduction of a charge of possibly £450.
Other options were restricting provision of transport to the nearest educational establishment, a combination of the above or complete withdrawal of all discretionary provision. The proposals sparked Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Berwick Julie Pörksen to set up a petition, which 500 people have signed, calling for the retention of charges.
The council announced before agreeing its budget that consultation would take place on the possible options.
Labour bosses have now revealed their favoured option would be for students travelling to sites within Northumberland to continue to receive free transport, but for charges to apply to those travelling outside the county.
A group spokesperson said: “That is our aim, to encourage the kids in Northumberland to stay in Northumberland.”
Their revelation comes after Ms Pörksen’s campaign was raised in Westminster.
Lib Dem Baroness Diana Maddock, wife of Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith, highlighted the issue in the House of Lords, claiming there had been an increase in numbers of students from Berwick attending college and sixth form since the council introduced free transport.
“We have a very low level of take-up of further and higher education in this part of the country and I hope she (government spokesperson Baroness Northover) will look at this because it increased the numbers of students who took up further education. I hope that, like me, she is rather concerned that now the council is being run by Labour, it is proposing to do away with this.”
Sir Alan has also been discussing the proposals with schools minister David Laws.
Ms Pörksen said strength of feeling is “high” and called for a change in the law, adding: “It is just not acceptable that councils are not obliged to provide free transport for students after their GCSE year. With the leaving age rising to 18, most young people will have to go to school so it should be free.
“I am trying to change the law to protect the rights of young people in rural areas such as Northumberland to free access to education up to the age of 18. The first step in this is developing a motion for the Lib Dem conference next week.”
The Labour group spokesperson responded: “We’re considering changes to post 16 transport because of the decisions by Liberal Democrats in government to support cuts to local government budgets.”
The consultation runs until May.