Conservative councillors in Northumberland are seeking to reinstate a cancelled meeting amid outrage over the return of transport charges for students in post-16 education.
Northumberland County Council scrapped its next full meeting amid an apparent lack of business, sparking anger among parents who were planning a protest over the authority’s decision to reintroduce travel charges for 16 to 18-year-olds travelling to schools with sixth forms and colleges.
The Tory opposition group has now asked for an extraordinary meeting to be held in place of the cancelled date.
Post-16 education transport charges 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.
Northumberland County Council budget reductions
Amount removed from budget in 2014/15
Amount to be removed over 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 and Tory politicians staged a protest at Alnwick’s Duchess’ Community High School last week.
They had planned another protest at the full council meeting next month at Morpeth’s County Hall and were hoping to attract around 100 parents to march through the town with banners beforehand.
However, the council last week announced the cancellation of the meeting, “due to insufficient business.”
Parents and Tories accused Labour of seeking to avoid public criticism over the issue, a claim the administration dismissed.
Now, the Tories have submitted a request demanding an extraordinary meeting in place of the cancelled date, saying the July meeting was called off before the deadline for motions and questions from members and the public had passed.
They have also claimed there was no notice given to, or consultation with, opposition leaders, and that the authority has “urgent business” to consider.
The authority’s consultation allows an extraordinary meeting to be called where five members have requested one, where the business chairman has refused to call a meeting or failed to respond to such a request within seven days.
The Tories’ request has been signed by 11 councillors.
One of those, Coun David Bawn, member for Morpeth North, said the cancellation was aimed at “sparing the administration’s blushes” on post-16 transport and its claims, previously reported by The Journal, that it would eradicate all potholes in the county by June.
He also asked how Labour could say there was no business given the deadlines had not passed.
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats in Northumberland have joined the criticism over the cancelled meeting, with Julie Pörksen, who is standing to replace retiring Sir Alan Beith as Berwick MP at the next election, vowing to take the matter up with party ministers.
Yet a Labour spokesman hit back at its rivals, accusing the Tories of failing to contribute to consultation on the transport issue.
He added: “Residents will rightly raise questions over the differing motives of Northumberland’s Conservatives and Lib Dems who have kept mum over coalition cuts to their communities and now seek to portray ‘faux’ outrage over a decision made necessary by their government’s cuts to the council budget.”
A council spokeswoman said the administration had been “perfectly entitled” to cancel the meeting “regardless of whether or not the deadline for motions or questions had passed,” as “no substantive business” was due to be considered.
She said decisions in relation to the “issues” highlighted by opposition councillors had already been made by the authority’s policy board and “could not be un-made, or changed by the full council.”