Rural Northumberland looks set to be hit hardest once again – this time thanks to ‘a callous indifference to education in rural communities’.
Northumberland County Council’s policy board will vote next week on a proposal to axe free transport for post-16 students in the county, saving £2.4million a year.
The Labour administration has pointed to the challenging financial situation the council faces plus the fact that the costs of the scheme have rocketed since its introduction in 2008 to around £936 a year per student.
But opponents to the changes – chief among them, the Lib Dems – have slammed the move as ‘outrageous discrimination’ against the more remote parts of Northumberland, while the Conservatives dubbed the proposals a ‘teenage tax’.
They have also raised concerns that the results of a public consultation seem to have been largely ignored.
If approved at next Thursday’s meeting, students aged 16 and above who were previously eligible for free transport – around 3,500 at present – will have to pay the full costs for public transport or £600 a year where the council organises school transport.
At the moment, 40 per cent of those eligible for free transport travel to sixth forms and colleges outside the county, which is estimated to have lost the county around £28million in potential income since 2008.
MP Sir Alan Beith said: “This is outrageous discrimination against students in the Berwick area and the more remote parts of Northumberland and if the Labour council goes ahead with the plan they will be demonstrating a callous indifference to education in rural communities.
“The Labour leader claims to be concerned with the cost of living, but this would be a massive cost of living increase for Northumberland families.”
Fellow Lib Dem Julie Pörksen, who launched a petition against the cuts, said it was shocking that Labour had not listened to those who signed the petition or shared their views.
“Labour’s charges will cause real hardship for many families, especially those in remote and rural areas, raising the cost of living for families with teenagers,” she added. “Given that the consultation only closed on Monday at 9am, the fact that they issued a report the next day means I can only presume that Labour never intended to listen to the views of Northumbrian residents.”
But a Labour group spokesman hit back, slamming the Lib Dems and Tories for allowing the Government to slash the council’s budget and claiming it was ‘rank opportunism’ to exploit people’s fears before a decision has been made.
“It is clear that we can’t fund a service that has grown by 320 per cent and a policy which means local schools and colleges lose an estimated £6.8million to Tyne and Wear,” he said.
“It’s time that local Lib Dems acknowledged the swingeing cuts by their Government are the reason we have to tackle post-16 transport and it’s high time they stood up for the 49 per cent of post-16 pupils who choose Northumberland to continue their education.”
If it is approved:
l Post-16 students will have to pay for public transport or a charge of £600 a year for council-supported school transport.
l Special provision will be made to exempt students with special educational needs or those from low-income backgrounds who attend their nearest appropriate school/college.
l The changes come in from September, but the current scheme will be retained for all post-16 students who continue their studies then.