Row over cancelled Northumberland County Council meeting in wake of protest

Council leaders criticised for scrapping free travel for students have cancelled a meeting at which parents were to protest

Angry parents gather outside Duchess High School in Alnwick to protest about transport changes
Angry parents gather outside Duchess High School in Alnwick to protest about transport changes

Council bosses who came under fire for axing free transport for students have cancelled their next meeting, scuppering a parents’ protest.

Labour leaders at Northumberland County Council have been heavily criticised for reinstating travel charges of in some cases £600 for students in post-16 education.

They have now announced the cancellation of their next meeting - at which some parents had planned a protest - citing a lack of business.

Protesters and Northumberland Conservatives have accused the administration of seeking to avoid public criticism. The claims were dismissed by Labour.

Transport charges for students aged 16 to 18 were scrapped by the Liberal Democrats in 2008.

But Labour recently approved plans for a £600 travel charge for students attending their nearest educational establishments, where public transport is not available.

Students who can travel on public transport would have to pay the full cost of their journeys.

Exemptions would apply to young people already in post-16 education, those with special educational needs and those from low-income backgrounds who attend their nearest school or college.

Council bosses say they had to remove £32m from the authority’s budget in 2014/15 and a further £100m over the next three years.

Yet opponents from the rural North of the county have accused the council of discriminating against families in outlying areas.

Around 70 parents and children staged a protest at Alnwick’s Duchess’ Community High School last week, joined by Tory politicians.

They had planned another protest at the full council meeting on July 3 at Morpeth’s County Hall and were hoping to attract around 100 parents to march through the town with banners beforehand.

However, the council has announced the cancellation of the meeting, “due to insufficient business.”

A Labour source claimed there were no motions or questions, and the only business would have been approval of minutes. He also claimed the cancellation would save the council £18,000 in officer time and travel allowances among other costs. The next full meeting is planned for September.

However, Sue Patterson from Seahouses, whose son is due to start sixth form at Alnwick in September, said: “They must be running scared.”

She vowed: “We will do it again, they can cancel it but when they arrange it again, we will be there.”

Coun Peter Jackson, leader of the council’s Tory group, claimed Labour is seeking to “trying to avoid a public outcry” and “ducking out of public protests” over the transport issue, and also its previous claims - reported by The Journal - that all potholes in the county would be eradicated by June.

“It is just a sad day for democracy and a really sad day for Northumberland,” he said.

He said his group had planned to submit a motion to the meeting calling for the post 16 transport decision to be overturned and claimed the savings achieved by cancelling the meeting would be “peanuts” as most councillors and officers will be at County Hall anyway.

But council and Labour leader Grant Davey dismissed the suggestions. He said: “Against the backdrop of savage cuts imposed by the Conservative led coalition, we think the public would expect us to save money where we can.

“There is no council business for this meeting so we won’t have a meeting for having a meeting’s sake.

“The decision has been taken on post 16 travel so it’s somewhat misleading to say that the meeting has been cancelled due to that reason.

“The only link between the two decisions is that we’ve got to cut the council budget by a quarter over the next three years so we must change the way we operate as a council.”


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