Campaign on post-16 transport proposals reaches Westminster

Julie P�rksen in front of school buses outside Alnwick's Duchess's Community High School.
Julie P�rksen in front of school buses outside Alnwick's Duchess's Community High School.

A Liberal Democrat campaign to oppose county-council changes and protect free travel for post-16 students in Northumberland has reached Westminster.

As part of the budget for 2014/15, Northumberland County Council’s Labour administration proposed to charge 16 to 18-year-olds £450 to travel to school or college, which became one of the most controversial aspects of the budget consultation.

The Tories dubbed the move a ‘teenage tax’ and Lib Dem Julie Pörksen, who is standing to succeed Sir Alan Beith as the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, set up a petition calling on Labour to remove the charges, which would reverse a decision made by the Lib Dems in 2009.

The Labour group pointed out that the cost of the scheme has risen by 323 per cent in the face of a 30 per cent budget cut for the council.

Coun Ian Swithenbank, policy board member for streetcare and environment, said: “Currently 3,600 students receive free travel which is an increase of more than 300 per cent in student numbers in the last five years. We now provide free travel for 51 per cent of post-16 students and the cost of this has risen to £3.3million in 2013/14.”

And at last month’s full council meeting, at which the budget was approved, it was agreed that the transport proposal, along with cuts to youth provision, would be removed for further consultation and to look at ‘a range of options’.

But on Thursday, Liberal Democrat Baroness Diana Maddock, who lives in Berwick, asked the Government to look at the impact free post-16 transport has on students attending college. Diana emphasised the increase in numbers of students from Berwick attending college and sixth form when the then Liberal Democrat administration introduced free transport.

Speaking in the House of Lords, she said: “When the Liberal Democrats took over the council, they instigated free transport for those aged over 16. We have a very low level of take-up of further and higher education in this part of the country and I hope she will look at this because it increased the numbers of students who took up further education. I hope that, like me, she is rather concerned that now the council is being run by Labour, it is proposing to do away with this.”

MP Sir Alan Beith is also discussing the issue with Schools Minister David Laws and at the same time as fighting the proposals, Ms Pörksen is trying to change the law.

“It is just not acceptable that councils are not obliged to provide free transport for students after their GCSE year. With the leaving age rising to 18, most young people will have to go to school so it should be free,” she said.

“I am trying to change the law to protect the rights of young people in rural areas such as Northumberland to free access to education up to the age of 18. The first step in this is developing a motion for the Lib Dem Conference next week.

“The council’s consultation on Labour’s plans to charge for school transport is now live and I urge anyone who wants to protect free travel for 16-18 year olds to take part. The strength of feeling is high and about 500 residents have already signed my petition against the proposed charge. There is still a chance for people to sign the petition before it is presented to the council through their petition scheme.”