Tories call for suspension of Northumberland transport charges decision

Conservative councillors in Northumberland have called on its county council to suspend its decision to bring back transport charges for students

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

Conservative councillors in Northumberland have called on their local authority to overturn its decision to bring back transport charges for students.

The Tory opposition group on Northumberland County Council has also filed a complaint to an ombudsman over the authority’s decision to cancel a meeting at which parents were to protest over the return of charges.

Labour bosses at the council have hit back at the Tories, saying their request for an extraordinary meeting in place of that cancelled could end up costing taxpayers “in excess of £45,000.”

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.

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 earlier this month.

They had planned another protest at the full council meeting in July at Morpeth’s County Hall but the council then announced the cancellation of the meeting “due to insufficient business.”

Parents and Tories accused Labour of seeking to avoid public criticism over the issue, with the Tories submitting a request demanding an extraordinary meeting in place of the cancelled date.

Last week, Hexham Tory MP Guy Opperman wrote to local government minister Brandon Lewis asking him to investigate the legality of the cancellation.

Now, the Tories have submitted a motion to the council calling for its policy board to “suspend” the decision to bring back charges.

Group leader Peter Jackson said: “It is clear that the Labour-run county council needs to reconsider its position. Cancelling meetings to hide away from public transparency and accountability does great harm to the credibility of the council. This is the coward’s way out.

“There are powers and safeguards within the county council’s constitution which give us a way out of this unholy mess which they have created.

“It is time to think again and to give some hope for the future for parents and young people all over Northumberland who will suffer as a result of this £600 teenage tax from Labour.

“Let us hope that the excuses stop now and that Labour will be prepared for sensible debate on this important issue.”

The council has yet to decide on the request for an extraordinary meeting.

A Labour group spokesman last night claimed it would cost “in excess of £45,000.”

He said: “Any additional meeting is already outstripping the £18,000 the council would have saved by cancelling the July meeting. The losers will be the poor taxpayer.”

He added: “The council must save £130m over the next four years and post-16 transport costs the council taxpayer £3.3m.

“No opposition party has told us how they would plug that gap and push the interests of post 16 education in the county which has lost out because of this policy.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer