Saturday, 12 July 2014

16-18 Travel in Northumberland: the Teenage Tax on 6th form & College students

Time to blog about about the Northumberland issue of the moment. 16-18 student travel costs and something I thought did not impact on me (yet), but I was wrong. I shall try for some history. Some way back under the last Liberal led admin, Northumberland enacted a new policy which said we will provide free travel to education for 16-18 year olds, both to locations in the county, and (subject to some constraints I suspect) without (that is important because Carlisle College, Newcastle College and others come into this). This presumably coupled into the idea that the norm that you go out to work at 16 has been well hammered:

Society has said
you stay in education
until you are eighteen.
Society then
had better help
pay for you
to get there!

Large rural
Shrugs them off.

The Labour party who with independent support now run Northumberland determined to undo this. They ran a consultation earlier in 2014 about making students pay up to £450 a head per year. When the finished proposals were published, this figure had become £600 p/a. Instant outrage because this was perceived as targetting rural parents. It being supposed that if you live in Guide Post and attend a high school in Ashington, the cost being nothing like four students from Berwick who want to go to the county's only agricultural college at Kirkley Hall. Somewhere into this was also injected the idea that no arrangements at all would be made if you chose 16-18 education outside the county. Additional to this is the idea that the county has conveyed that schools now have to arrange all of this through monies they have. The county in effect is totally ditching the organisation of 16-18 scholar travel.

I hope I have that right. Months of god almighty row have followed.  Try and  .

After the July county council meeting was cancelled for lack of business which does seem pretty odd bearing in mind how much non Teenage stuff came first in the meeting when it did take place, the Tory group demanded a meeting. With very bad grace, the Labour/Indy admin allowed this and the meeting took place on Friday past. The Tory motion was defeated 30/34. Along the way the two Independent councillors for Ovingham and Stocksfield (both I sense to be rather Tory places) enabled this to happen by voting with the administration. The Stocksfield councillor argues, along with the administration, that the motion as tabled by the Tories was in fact unlawful.

You can sense the difficulties in all of this. Some would say Labour were trying to score a political point by saying look what happens when we have to make all the cuts the government forces on us. Others (and the parents seem central to this) feel the south east Northumberland centred administration was trying to penalise what they perceive as the Liberal and Tory voting fringes. If so I find that quite appalling. And as this example taken from the Parents against website shows I suspect it is totally counter productive: " I live in the South east of the county in Ellington and my children travel to Ashington high. The school are informing parents to go to the NCC website to find the guidelines. I can't afford the £25 a week that it will cost for my son to go to the sixth form and I don't want him going to Northumberland college so not sure what he is going to do".

I feel the whole issue shows the funding double whammy Northumberland faces. One of England's most rural counties gets one of the worst per head inputs from government. A rural county spends more to deliver a service, this transport being a case in point. When that rural county then focusses its attention onto its urban South East core, there is a double whammy.

We got dragged into all this when just over a week before the vote, we learnt very accidentally that our 416 bus our fourteen year old uses, was being cancelled. There was an outcry and the decision has been deferred for two terms. Along that way, this categorically showed me that whatever the policy rights and wrongs, the implementation was in chaos. Downloading the implementation to the educational establishment was leaving those ill prepared, lacking in personnel and briefing.

I very much suspect the county has not done the investigations into the application of the policy prior to applying it. Instead a sense of a proxy war between providers like Northumberland College and Newcastle College is suggested. The former has announced free travel for all 16-18 year olds including those in Tyne & Wear. That will be an interesting bill to sustain. At a meeting in Prudhoe last Tuesday, I heard Councillor Paul Kelly from Ovingham explicitly say that this was all about preventing students leaving the county in order to drive up provision in the county. That is virtually Stalinist and in relation to Northumberland's geography and resource profoundly unrealistic.

In Tynedale it is almost impossible for many students to reach the Ashington campus of Northumberland college. Scores travel in by train to Newcastle College. Look at this bus timetable for the Carlisle College service. How do you think the teenagers of Halton Lea Gate are going to feel about this abandonment by the county?

I think that come the autumn the issue will be far from silent. I also prophesy that many more than just the 16-18 years olds are affected. Where-ever a bus (like our 416) had younger children sharing a service with 16-18 there is likely to be a knock on effect. At the West Area Committee Meeting last Tuesday, I raised this question. I could see eyebrows raise as people pondered it. The county senior officer could do no more than promise me that an answer would be forthcoming. Not so far, although the question was minuted.

It is really really sad and divisive that it has come to this. Northumberland faces many challenges and a them/us urban/rural split is not helpful. I really do sense an aggression and a refusal to work to productive solutions from Grant Davey, the council leader. You can make your own judgements by studying his words. One of the examples the council cited as a bad result of the existing policy leaves me open handed. It is those students in Berwick wanting to get to Kirkley Hall in the same county. What are we to do? Don't we want farmers in Northumberland from Northumberland. Have we gone completely crazy?

If you read this and can tweak my details, correcting any blatant error of fact or providing some amplication, I shall be pleased to consider same and make alterations.

SCUTINY: In various places there has been debate about why the decision was not "called in". From my perspective I found this an interesting read

This says "Hi Pamela - any one of the councillors could have called-in - not just the conservatives. There was a very good reason it was not called in though and I repeat why it was not here: Allison,

"Calling In" is when the relevant Scrutiny Committee formally ask the Policy Board to reconsider a decision. Some people have been given the misleading impression that had the decision been called in it would have been debated on and decided by Full Council this is not the case.

This decision went to the Scrutiny Committee before the Policy Board made the decision. The Conservatives voted against the Policy, Labour for and Anne Dale abstained.

We won that round and the Scrutiny advice was for them not to make the decision they did. Such a decision however is not binding upon the Policy Board and was therefore ignored.

We have lost faith with the current Scrutiny process as it is dominated by Labour (where in most councils as part of good practice the Chairmen of the Scrutiny Functions are usually opposition Councillors).

If we had called in the decision (something that can only be done by members from the Scrutiny committees) then it would have just gone back to the Policy Board and been ignored again.

It was always our intention to raise this at full Council at 2nd July as the only way to bring the opposition maximum publicity and publicly hold the Policy Board accountable for its decision.

One of the members of the Scrutiny Committee Councillor Dale could have called in the decision or voted against it at pre-scrutiny- she did neither.

Kind Regards

David Bawn County Councillor Morpeth North"

1 comment:

Paul Vickers said...

How could a motion asking the Policy Board to revisit a decision they made possibly be considered unlawful????