Labour hits back in transport row

The Labour administration at County Hall has hit back at political opponents over post-16 transport proposals, challenging them to ‘back our schools and colleges’.

Northumberland County Council’s Labour group is consulting on changes to the scheme which provides free transport to schools and colleges for eligible 16 to 18-year-olds and it could see students having to pay £450 a year.

First announced as part of the county’s recently-approved budget for 2014/15, it became one of the most controversial aspects of the 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 not impose 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, as more than 3,500 students are now eligible, in the face of a 30 per cent council budget cut.

The county council’s business chairman and councillor for Druridge Bay, Scott Dickinson, said: “It seems local Liberal Democrats want to have their cake and eat it.

“First Sir Alan votes with the Tories to cut council budgets by over 25 per cent year-on-year and then he complains about the effects on his constituents.

“We want to make sure that education in Northumberland becomes the first choice for its children and young people and we don’t think it’s fair on schools and colleges in the county to subsidise the likes of Newcastle College.

“Under our proposals, travel to schools and colleges will continue to be free as part of our Support our Schools and Colleges campaign.

Last Thursday, speaking in the House of Lords, 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.

Sir Alan 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.

“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,” she said.

“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 to 18-year-olds to take part.”