Councillors who have forced a debate on a decision to cut school transport have been told it could be “unlawful” to reverse the proposals.
The row over transport for post-16 students in Northumberland reached new heights, with Prime Minister David Cameron wading into the row and all three political parties in the county taking highly-charged potshots at each other.
The council’s Labour administration said a meeting on Friday to discuss the plans would cost £80,000 - a figure rubbished by their rivals - and blamed the coalition Government for forcing £130m of cuts on the authority.
It also emerged that councillors had been sent a letter from council’s lead executive director Steve Mason, in which he warns that a motion from the Conservative group to reverse the decision could leave the council open to a costly challenge in the courts.
Post-16 education transport charges were scrapped by the Liberal Democrats when they ran the council 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 were forced to bring back charges as they have to remove £32m from the authority’s budget in 2014/15 and a further £100m over the next three years.
But parents, pupils and politicians from rural areas of the county have accused the council of discriminating against families in such areas, with over 1,200 joining a Facebook group and a protest staged outside an Alnwick school last month.
They had planned a similar protest at a full council meeting earlier this month, only for the authority to cancel it citing lack of business - a move they said would save £18,000.
The council’s Tory opposition demanded an extraordinary meeting, with more than the five councillors required to force such a course of action signing an official request.
The extraordinary meeting was scheduled for Friday, with Labour bosses claiming it would cost £45,000.
Party leaders have now claimed the council’s accountants have put the cost to the taxpayer of Friday’s meeting at £80,000.
Council leader Grant Davey said: “The cost of the extraordinary meeting has skyrocketed and we’ve had to audit the cost.
“It now stands at nearly £9k each for each of the signatories of the motion put forward by their leader Coun (Peter) Jackson. Northumberland Tories have very serious questions to answer – how can they justify calling a meeting that will cost taxpayers £80k while this council has to find £130m in cuts over the next four years? This is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Coun Jackson hit back, saying: “It is absolute rubbish. The £45,000 was misleading and was a lie and how they can claim that it is even more than that is beyond me.”
His party had tabled a question to Friday’s meeting demanding a breakdown of the costs when they were put at £45,000.
Coun Jackson said he could not see how the meeting could cost more than £1,000 and added: “You have got to question the administration at County Hall, how they think it is going to cost them £80,000 to have a meeting with 67 people.”
The Journal has seen a confidential letter to members from the council’s lead executive director for corporate resources, Steve Mason, in which he warns of the risks of supporting the motion from the Tories, requesting the authority’s policy board reviews its decision to bring in charges.
In it, Mr Mason expresses “concern” about the passing or debating of the motion on the basis that decisions delegated to the policy board can only be taken by policy board and that it would be “unlawful” for full council to undermine that position.
His letter claims it would be “counterproductive” to discuss a matter the policy board has already determined as reopening the matter “increases the risk of challenge against that decision in the courts.”
Mr Mason says: “I would ask then that you bear this advice in mind when considering and voting on the motion.”
Coun Jackson responded: “It is just another example of bullyboy tactics from the county council.
“We are convinced our motion is entirely legal. We are asking the Labour-run policy board to reconsider its decision. There is nothing illegal about that at all.”
Meanwhile, rumours that the headteacher of the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, Maurice Hall, has been put on gardening leave having distributed literature produced by opponents of the transport charges, have been dismissed.
The Journal reported how Mr Hall had apologised to parents for his actions, while rumours abounded that he he had been put on gardening leave as a result. But school governor Ian Walker said Mr Hall is currently off work for personal reasons and said it was an “unfortunate coincidence” that the literature issue had come at the same time.