Knitting budgets together
It was inevitable that, at the start of the autumn term, horror stories about home-to-school services would surface.
One popped up on my screen this morning; parents of special educational needs children in Suffolk baffled by endless, late changes of vehicle, driver and operator, whether taxis or minibuses. Their comments cast doubt on the efficiency of the county council’s SEN provision, and thankfully not on the operators.
It’s absolutely no consolation to anyone, least of all operators, that the quantity and quality of home-to-school transport is plummeting, local authorities now providing the bare, legal minimum in every department as government austerity measures bite into budgets. So councils cannot be blamed, right?
Well, no. I have been writing about this industry for 30 years, and in all that time the disconnect between public transport subsidy and schools transport has remained; a bureaucratic chasm of inefficiency, created by ludicrous separation of budgets. In all that time, it appears that nobody has had the wit to permanently nail together local bus subsidies and school bus contracts.
In coming weeks, you’ll be reading about Tom Weber, of WeberBus, who has started his fledgling business with a smart, refurbished ‘decker and a school contract. He has a ticket machine. What he doesn’t have is a bus route in Bedfordshire. His business plan is to pick up other schools work between the peaks – the usual pattern.
I fully understand that the morning peaks for commuters and schools are the same, but from four o’clock onwards, in common with most operators’ schools vehicles, Tom’s bus will be parked up. I cannot, for the life of me, work out why local authorities have not twigged that, SEN transport aside, the ideal situation would be a local service which, every morning and afternoon, performs a school run, but before, in between and after, provides a local bus service.
Running buses involves massive fixed costs. To pay those fixed costs twice, for a school bus and a service bus, is wasteful, to say the least. And yes, I know that where a stage carriage service exists, schools plug into them. It’s just that a see no sign of the opposite, with new bus services plugging into the school bus run. I’d be pleased to hear otherwise.
With efficiency comes a massive benefit; instead of returning the savings to budgets, they could be used to improve the quality of vehicles and bring stability to local operators, reduce pollution, congestion and perhaps replace so many rural bus routes which have been dumped, and the people who use them isolated in their homes.