Opposition says West Northamptonshire Council's transport to school provision is in 'complete chaos'

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“This vital service is broken and in complete chaos. It is failing families; it is failing schools”

The opposition has described the the council's handling of transport to school provision in West Northamptonshire as “broken” and in “complete chaos”.

The Labour Group on West Northamptonshire Council (WNC) has criticised the local authority’s home to school transport services following the publication of an internal scathing report that came before its audit committee on last Wednesday (November 16).

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The report reads: “The weaknesses identified during the review have left the council open to significant risks. Annual audits were not completed consistently on operators, no management information was being provided in relation to the service provision, spot checks and complaints records were not consistent and actions were not always followed up in timely manner. If the risks materialise it would have a major impact upon the organisation as a whole.”

West Northants Council has been criticised for its handling of transport to school provisionWest Northants Council has been criticised for its handling of transport to school provision
West Northants Council has been criticised for its handling of transport to school provision

WNC must provide free school transport for certain children throughout the county, by law, with the outsourced service costing the council £18m a year.

Home to school transport came under scrutiny at the start of the school year with some SEND pupils failing to be collected from home/school on time, regularly and in some cases not at all.

Further cause for concern was the financial impact the scheme was having on council coffers – in September it was projected to exceed its budget by £3.1 million, with the rising levels of inflation and the Covid-19 pandemic being the explanation provided by the Conservative administration at September’s cabinet meeting.

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Labour’s shadow transport spokesman, councillor Keith Holland Delamere (Billing and Rectory Farm), said: "The entire model for how this vital service is run is broken and in complete chaos. It is failing families; it’s failing schools and ultimately failing the council.

"Maintaining 800 separate contracts for a service that used to be provided by the council is ludicrous and is producing an unacceptable cost to residents.

"Currently the outsourcing of this service is failing to demonstrate that it can provide good value, align with our climate strategy, or meet the needs of our families and children.

"We need to be learning from other local authorities about how they support residents with their transport needs. Transport should be financially sustainable and ensure seamless commuting and commerce but also, we also should acknowledge that it is a public good – one that if we invest in, we can save money and release pressure from other services.”

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The man in charge of transport at WNC, Conservative councillor Phil Larratt, said the service is set to be split between North and West Northants going forward so the two unitaries can focus on their individual areas. The councillor went on to say that he welcomes the report and that a “clear action plan has been developed”.

Councillor Larratt said: "It clearly informs us as to what we have to do to deliver a quality service in West Northamptonshire, that puts pupil safety at the heart of the service.

“From the audit report a clear action plan has been developed, that we are all signed up to, that will lead to the delivery a service we can be proud of. We have already started rectifying many of the issues contained within the report with a clear timeline for completing all these necessary changes and improvements. Of the 11 recommendations, six of the highest priority actions have already been completed, four are in progress and will be in place by the end of this year, with the remaining action to be completed by April next year.”

Other issues mentioned in the report include:

-Failure by the council to ensure that the providers who carry out the 800 separate school transport contracts have been correctly and regularly audited.

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-Failure to ensure at a minimum regular safeguarding training is undertaken within the service.

-Failure to ensure providers have adequate safeguarding protections in place.

-Failing to inspect providers and failing to act/follow up on complaints.

-Failing to monitor performance of the contracts and providers.