School transport row deepens

Council cuts budget for vulnerable children, writes Russell Hargrave

Waltham Forest Council has denied cutting provision of school transport for vulnerable children – after agreeing to reduce the service’s budget by £300,000.

A council report stated the local authority was aiming to slash spending over the next four years by encouraging more families to choose personal travel budgets, which involves making direct payments to them to make their own transport arrangements.

Referring to one option available to families, under which children travel on specially-adapted minibuses, it stated: “The savings achieved will include those from families opting for alternative options to direct transport provision.”

But a council spokesperson told the Echo that money would be saved through a more efficient contract and “not a cut in service delivery”.

The new school transport contract will cost the council around £1.8m each year compared to £2.1m in 2017. It will run for at least four years. However, the council report also warned: “If take up from families for personal travel budgets is poor then this will impact savings.”

Melanie Draper, a local mum whose family has relied on the specialist bus service for many years, said: “Every year I can see it getting harder and harder.

“They can promote this travel budget as much as they want, but it’s not suitable for a lot of us.”

Melanie’s family was one of 204 whose transport arrangements were reduced or refused by the council only to later be reinstated on review, as reported by the Echo in May.

“There is a complete lack of transparency as to what the policy is,” Melanie said. “Your child gets it for years and then suddenly they don’t qualify.

“I’m going to have to grovel again for a [transport] place.”

Melanie added: “I’m not the only parent who feels like that. This has got to be funded. Our lives are difficult enough and this is just the last straw.”

Danny Herbert, another local campaigner, described the proposals as “shocking” and said that some families still don’t know what will happen when schools restart in September. He explained that his son Charlie, who has autism, has chosen to travel to school independently rather than use specialist transport. The council had promised Charlie support and training as part of this process, but Danny said that it hadn’t yet materialised.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year, we have heard nothing back,” Danny continued. “We don’t know if there’s going to be some travel provision, because he hasn’t been given the independent travel training to get him to college.”

The council claims it is providing support for parents and carers who want to explore alternatives, including reimbursement of expenses, so that families know they will not have to find extra funds, and training on independent travel.

Councillor Grace Williams, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We have worked hard to make sure families are more involved in the process of applying for direct travel support.

“This means that they have more input when it comes to deciding what is best for their child, and that the service their child receives meets their needs. This is one way we are helping to support residents make the most of their life chances.”