HEREFORDSHIRE Council has this morning (Friday) put out a three point clarification of the future for school transport charges as pressure mounts over “the vote that wasn’t”.

Councillors came away from the 2014-15 budget meeting a week ago believing they had backed an amendment to stop school transport charges from being introduced in September.

Earlier this week opposition members cried foul and called for a special scrutiny inquiry when the council said the vote, in fact, supported the introduction of charges from September.

After a week of pressure and accusation, the council this morning confessed to a  “level of confusion” over the charges and their imposition from September.

In a clarification statement put out in the names of chief executive Alistair Neill and director for children’s well-being Jo Davidson, the council stands by its interpretation of the vote and the implementation of charges – with a transition fund to assist schools and families.

Divided into three key points, the statement is outlined here in full:

The decision:

A full council meeting was held on Friday 7 February to debate the council budget.  Whilst the council’s formal meeting procedures may understandably be unfamiliar to many residents, all councillors are familiar with these procedures.  It was clear that the debate and decision making process was about setting the budget for 2014/15 and not about council policies.

A budget amendment was proposed relating to the school transport policy and during the course of the debate, full council discussed the importance of providing families and schools with some breathing space to adjust to the new policy. 

Herefordshire Council is aware that through careful financial management, additional funding can be made available during the transition period. 

Deputy leader Councillor Patricia Morgan made it clear that this would be for transition purposes only, after which councillors unanimously voted to transfer the money to establish a one off transition fund.

School transport policy:

The policy was originally agreed by cabinet in December 2013, before being called in by the general overview and scrutiny committee in January.  It was then re-examined and upheld by cabinet last month. 

The new school transport policy remains unchanged and will come into effect in September 2014, when the council will provide free transport to the nearest suitable school only, over certain distance criteria, with a charge being made for young people over the age of 16 with special educational needs using council provided transport.

The Transition fund:

The £112,000 transition fund has been made available to help schools and families adapt to the policy changes.  For example, it could be used to contribute towards costs for families or for helping schools to set up specific transport arrangements. 

A number of schools are already closely working with council officers to identify different transport options and are advising on how the transition funding could be used.  The funding criteria will be determined by cabinet on Thursday 13 March, earlier if possible, and will be published on the council’s website.