PROPOSED changes to post-16 student transport, which could see learners forking out up to £450 a year for travel, are up for consultation.
Northumberland County Council’s ruling Labour group suggested the charges as part of the budget consultation process last month.
But members insist that no decision has yet been made and any definitive changes to the current system will be subject to more public consultation.
Council Policy Board Member Ian Swithenbank said: “It’s important to say that no final decisions have been made and that we’re still looking at a range of options for post-16 transport in the county.
“Unlike most councils, Northumberland County Council currently pays to transport children to the nearest establishment that does the course they want, regardless of distance, and many children are transported out of the county to do this.
“We also provide free travel to the nearest denominational school where evidence of faith is provided. Currently, 3,600 students receive free travel, which is an increase of more than 300 per cent in student numbers in the last five years. We now provide free travel for 51 per cent of post-16 students and the cost of this has risen to £3.3million in 2013/14.”
The proposed charges are part of the council’s medium term financial plan, which estimates the authority will have to save more than £130million over the next four years due to Government funding cuts, with £32.5million of savings having to be made in the next financial year.
The sums are based on provisional figures from the Government, which could change after the next general election.
Council Leader Grant Davey has accused the Government of placing a “financial straitjacket” on the authority.
He said: “In making these savings we’re determined to protect frontline services to the public as best we can and continue to invest in Northumberland and the local economy.
“We are working hard to come up with innovative solutions before presenting our final budget in February.
“We’re putting the final touches to the proposed budget, but it’s clear that the Government has placed a financial straitjacket on Northumberland County Council.”
Liberal Democrat student transport campaigner Julie Porksen, who will be standing to replace Sir Alan Beith in the Berwick constituency at the next election, has repeated calls for residents to sign a petition against the proposed charges.
If she gets 1,500 signatures the issue will be subject to debate in the council chamber. The petition can be found at www.berwicklibdems.org.uk