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Changes to school transport in Rhondda Cynon Taf will go ahead 

The start of the Rhondda Valley (Pic: Anthony Lewis)

CHANGES to secondary school and college transport in Rhondda Cynon Taf will go ahead after a council committee voted not to refer them back to decision makers.

A special overview and scrutiny committee on Wednesday, March 27 considered a call-in on the decision made by cabinet on Wednesday, March 20 to bring free school transport eligibility distances for secondary schools and colleges in line with statutory guidance by increasing them from two to three miles.

But cabinet opted to keep the current criteria for primary schools despite the original proposal being to change the eligibility distance from 1.5 miles to two miles from school.

The decision to keep the primary school criteria would see 305 primary school pupils keep their free school transport entitlement who would have lost it other under the preferred option that was consulted upon. This includes 242 Welsh language primary pupils and 63 faith primary pupils but it would reduce the potential savings by £200,000 a year.

The call-in was signed by Councillor Karen Morgan, Plaid Cymru; Councillor Paul Binning, independent and Councillor Karl Johnson, Conservative, and said that there is a need to further consider the negative impact of the decision for pupils, parents/carers and the communities of Rhondda Cynon Taf.

It also said that the decision to proceed did not fully consider the negative impact in relation to legal implications, equality impact assessment and Welsh language assessment.

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Another reason given for the call-in was to further scrutinise if the cabinet decisions being called in are legally compliant and in accord with duties under the Future Generation Wales Act 2015, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the Equalities Act and Welsh Language Act.

And the fourth reason was to further scrutinise the practicalities in delivering the delegated authority to the director of highways, streetcare and transportation services as agreed.

Concern about impact on Welsh medium education

Cllr Karen Morgan said she supports the cabinet decision to retain the 1.5 mile distance for primary schools but unless the two mile distance is retained for secondary school pupils then all of the negatives identified in the equalities and Welsh language impact assessments will prevail.

She said the fear of children being forced to migrate to English medium from Welsh medium ones because they are closer to home is a reality purely because parents are unable to pay for transport.

Cllr Karen Morgan also mentioned the threat to Welsh medium education of those going to English medium schools which are further away because they will now qualify for free transport.

She said: “The choice of preferred language is being taken away from parents.”

She also said there’s general acceptance in the cabinet report that some pupils will be disadvantaged because of poverty and recommended that the council continues with the discretionary arrangements for secondary and faith sector as well as the primary sector.

She also raised concern about a statement that said they did consider the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child but that they didn’t have to.

Cllr Karen Morgan said that the fact 18 other Welsh councils not having the concessions RCT does is a position to be a proud of not a reason to slash it adding that home to school transport plays a crucial role in ensuring students can attend school regularly.

A recommendation to postpone the decision until legislation comes through

Councillor Karl Johnson expressed his disappointment with the decision made by cabinet saying it will have a “huge impact” on pupils but that he does welcome the decision to retain the provision for primary school children.

He said in his community there’ll be a minimal impact for primary but a massive impact for secondary education and asked why weren’t more children engaged with through the schools.

Cllr Johnson said there were no alternative proposals to investigate if they have PSVAR  (Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations) vehicles available which are disabled access and will be required for home to school transport.

He also raised concern over safe walking routes and suggested they postpone the decision until the Bus Services (Wales) Bill has passed through the Senedd that’ll allow them to determine bus routes that will better suit the needs of schools.

The view of a cabinet member

Councillor Ann Crimmings, cabinet member for environment and leisure, said they are satisfied that the report and the equality and Welsh language impact assessments are robust and provided the necessary information for cabinet to have due regard to the potential implications of this decision.

She also said they’re satisfied that the decision is compliant with the Well Being of Future Generations Act and said the savings estimate is a conservative one which takes into account some routes not being available and pupils continuing to receive home to school transport for that reason.

One policy doesn’t fit all

Councillor Gaynor Warren said one policy can’t be applied to the whole of RCT as areas differ widely in their access to public transport, safe travel routes to schools and the location of the schools.

She said areas need to be assessed individually and that it should the proposals should be referred back to cabinet or looked at by council and the decision not delegated.

Cllr Warren said: “We need to look at ways we can still provide the transport while recouping the cost. We can’t just wipe our hands of school transport and say the children have to find their own way.”

The context in which the decision is being made

Councillor Ros Davis said they have to acknowledge that there are bound to be negative impacts when they reduce a service.

She said the council doesn’t provide a service just for the fun of it so sadly there are going to be negative impacts but they’ve got to realise the context that they’re living in with 14 years of austerity and the council is finding it very difficult to balance the books.

She said a lot of services are really hollowed out and staff are under pressure and the good thing is that they’ve largely been able to protect school budgets and they’ve listened to the public adding that they should welcome and applaud the fact they’re protecting primary school discretionary transport.

Disproportionate impact in some areas

Councillor Mike Powell said they’re seeing a disproportionate number of pupils per area being affected by the proposals and said the Pontypridd area pays the highest contribution in council tax in RCT.

He said they’ve got areas that are contributing vast sums of money to the public purse and yet they’re the ones being hammered the most by this decision.

He said they need to be considering alternative areas where they could be saving money while not reducing services.

Satisfaction with the information provided to cabinet

Councillor Craig Middle said he’s comfortable that they’ve scrutinised this and due diligence has been done with the consultation adding he sees no reason for this to go back to cabinet but those in Welsh medium and faith schools tend to travel longer so they’d have free transport so there’s fairness and parity throughout the county borough.

Councillor Sheryl Evans said it’s clear to her from the feedback that negative impacts have been considered and consulted upon and that alternative options have been considered.

She said the status quo can’t be maintained under the current financial circumstances and the information provided to cabinet has been robust enough to inform the decision that has been made.

The decision will now take effect and be implemented from the start of the 2025/2025 academic year.

The reasons given in the cabinet report for considering the proposals were that the council is facing an £85.4m budget gap over the next three years and that home to school transport costs have increased from £8m in 2015 to over £15m for the 2023/24 financial year and the council said operates a “very generous” home to school transport service which is the largest of its kind in Wales and would still be more generous than 18 out of 22 councils.

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