Cllr Penny Otton has campaigned long and hard to get free home-to-school transport for a small number of pupils in Rattlesden, Woolpit and Elmswell who were caught between catchment areas. At the moment these villages are each split between Stowupland and Thurston High Schools’ catchments although from 2014 they will all be in the Thurston catchment.
A few families, having chosen to send their children to Thurston Community College were faced with an unexpected termly bill.
“It just didn’t seem fair,” says Penny Otton. “Especially as no-one in their right mind would want to send their child to Stowupland for one single year!”
” The families were very poorly informed, both as to the situation and as to their rights. I have been fighting this anomaly for months. At least today the SCC cabinet has come round to my point of view and agreed to allow free transport to the year 9 pupils involved. However I am very disappointed that year 10 children will still be forced to pay when their friends just 1 street away do not. This is not equitable in the circumstances.”
Faced with the major collapse of rural bus ‘services’ in Suffolk, Woodbridge Councillor and Lib Dem Spokesman for Transport Caroline Page, has long been calling on both Suffolk County Council and the government to look at re-regulation of rural bus services.
“The response of both institutions has been largely negative,” she says “despite clear evidence that ‘competition’ and ‘market forces’ have done absolutely nothing to benefit rural users over the last decades .”
Yet re-regulation is not impossible.
Last Friday the five Tyne and Wear councils voted to start the consultation necessary to re-regulate their buses . It will be the first region to take the plunge since deregulation of bus non-London services in the 1980s. Re-regulation will allow the region to aim once again for the efficiency, coverage and price which is standard for bus services in regulated London by giving bus companies franchises to run all local services, instead of letting them cherry-pick the ones on which they can make the most money. This is why there are ‘bus wars’ on popular routes in towns and no service at all in many rural areas.
Tyne and Wear was warned that without change, all local school buses would go; a further 200 bus routes would likely disappear, and concessionary child fares would vanish. However, if the councils take over the bus routes, they could use the current subsidy and profits to grow the service to make it meet the needs of all residents.
“Tyne and Wear’s problems are not dissimilar to those we are facing in Suffolk,” says Caroline.
Buses are Britain’s main form of public transport, and in the old days the concept of bus ‘services’ meant service: popular routes would fund socially necessary but less income-generating services elsewhere. De-regulation was heralded by the Thatcher administration as providing competition, but in fact since the 80s some big bus companies have clearly used their size to see off other competitors creating local monopolies which do not benefit passengers at all . According to the FT “Bus companies earn higher margins outside London.. Stagecoach makes an average of 17 per cent outside London, while the figure for Go-Ahead is 10 per cent.” The FT says that average London operators make between 4 and 5 %.
“Bus companies should be forced to compete with each other to provide proper services rather than to maximise profits. I once again call upon Suffolk County Council to do everything they can to make this possible,” says Caroline.
A BBC Look East programme last week highlighted the state of education for those children in Suffolk who have been excluded from school. It claimed that many of these are being put at risk in unregistered education centres. Unregistered centres are neither known to – nor inspected by – Ofsted, the education watchdog. Suffolk County Council has nine unregistered centres but denies children there are unsafe.
Liberal Democrat County Councillor Penny Otton – who was interviewed for the programme as Spokesperson for Education, Skills, Young People and Localities – said, “”It sounds to me like an absolutely major crisis!”
” I am shocked that these very vulnerable children are being taught in premises which are not registered, many being obviously unfit for use. Unlike other educational institutions, they are not inspected by Ofsted. This is a serious issue, which brings into question how the council is protecting and supporting these children who often have major behavioural problems.I have already brought this worrying situation up with the new Education, Children and Young People scrutiny committee and I will continue to do so. The council must do something as a matter of urgency.”