Falkirk Council: Councillors reject plans to cut school bus services to save £1m
Members had been urged to agree to reduce the covered travel distance for school pupils in a bid to save the council more than £1 million, as the local authority faces a budget deficit of £64 million over five years.
Councillors were told that the change, which would affect more than 1600 pupils, was the “least worst” option on the table, and would affect just five per cent of Falkirk’s pupils.
And they were warned that refusing to accept this cut will inevitably mean that teachers, support for learning assistants and social worker jobs are at risk. Other options to balance the books could be reducing curriculum choice or cutting school hours.
A statement from members of the Scottish Youth Parliament spoke about the impact the proposal would have on young people’s education, pleading with councillors: “Don’t let education be something that young people are unable to access.”
In the face of widespread public opposition, the SNP had put forward a compromise motion, suggesting that only secondary schools should be affected – reducing the impact but also cutting the potential savings by £500.000.
Instead a motion from the Labour group to not go ahead with the proposed cut was backed by the Conservative group and most Independents.
The Labour group leader, Councillor Anne Hannah, laid the blame for the council’s financial position firmly at the door of the Scottish Government. And she said that the suggestion that the council could be taken over by auditors was “a bullying tactic”.
She said: “No Scottish local authority has ever been sanctioned for failing to agree a balanced budget. Not ever. Never in the history of local government in Scotland. Not even during the Thatcher Government .”
Conservative group leader James Kerr, said his group was prepared to take difficult decisions but this was not one they could support. He was not convinced that the mitigations were enough and his group felt the proposal would only encourage “more cars and more congestion”.
Former SNP education portfolio holder, Councillor Laura Murtagh, tried to get the decision postponed to make it part of next year’s budget debate. The councillor, who resigned from the party in July, said they were not comparing “apples with apples” and there were too many unknowns.
In particular, at the moment teacher numbers are protected by the Scottish Government – something that could change next year.
SNP current education spokesperson, Councillor Iain Sinclair, criticised opposition councillors, saying: “Once again when faced with a tough decision, collective irresponsibility outweighs any reason.”
As it became clear that the SNP would not carry the vote, he said: “Not taking decisions like this has become the default position, surely an abdication of responsibilities entrusted to elected members by the electorate.
“We have a duty to be honest with the public. But the only message to take from today is that we know what the problem is, we just don’t want to fix it.”
He said that officers had done their best to mitigate many of the problems raised during the consultation, carefully considering safe walking routes and promoting the free travel card provided by the Scottish Government.
“We are left in a worse position than we were at the start of this meeting,” he said. “Our schools, our pupils, our teachers, our communities and families want clarity from us as a council.
“Instead, what they are being left with is ambiguity and procrastination from a body that refuses to get a grip on the situation.”