Owen’s Pontypridd Observer column 25/06/2015

A number of constituents have got in touch with me over the plans by RCT Council to introduce some charges for Home to School Transport. At present, the council provides free transport for primary pupils who live more than 1.5 miles from their nearest school, and secondary pupils who live 2 miles away. That’s more generous than in many parts of Wales, and more generous than the council has to offer under the law. However, faced with more cuts coming down the line from the Tory Government in Westminster and with a current budget gap of £42 million to make up, the council is now considering issue a charge of £1.75 a day for all journeys between 1.5 and 2 miles, and 2 and 3 miles for primary and secondary pupils respectively.

These changes will affect around 7000 pupils across RCT and children attending Faith schools will be particularly affected as a greater proportion of them tend to live a long way from their schools. Parents and heads from those schools have therefore been particularly concerned, worried that the new system will discriminate against their children, even questioning the viability of their schools after the introduction of charging. So, last week I went to meet with our Council Leader, Andrew Morgan and his deputy, Kieron Montague, to discuss these concerns and to hear myself the Council’s justification for these changes.

I challenged Andrew and Kieron on the need for the changes but after our discussion I am persuaded that they face little choice but to introduce charging if they are to maintain the current provision of school buses. This year the council has to cut over £20 million and next month’s Tory budget looks set to make things worse. Our Labour council is, of course, looking for ways to mitigate the effect of the charges on our least well-off families and I am pleased to say that changes will be significantly reduced, to £1, for pupils on free school meals. I have asked that they consider how the charges might be reduced further still. Crucially, free transport that is provided for pupils with Special Educational Needs will not be affected.

On the issue of Faith schools I have urged the council during the consultation to make certain charges will not affect the viability of any of our schools. We need to be as clear as is possible that this will not lead to a collapse in the rolls at any one school. Though I fully understand how strongly some parents and pupils will feel about these changes, I do not agree that the schools are being unfairly discriminated against, but it is vital to consider in detail the additional effect the changes will make for them.