A CHARGE for spare seats on dedicated school transport vehicles in Carmarthenshire has been waived as the authority continues to grapple with a change a legislation.
All buses must, as of January 1 this month, have full disability access following legislation brought in by the UK Department for Transport.
Some coach companies have opted to pull services rather than update their vehicles.
Speaking at an executive board meeting, Cllr Hazel Evans said: “It is a classic case of a decision made by Government that has unintended consequences.”
Estimates of the number of Carmarthenshire pupils affected, mainly in urban and semi-urban areas, vary but are said to be in the low to mid hundreds.
Cllr Evans, executive board member for environment, said: “I empathise with the families who have enjoyed the use of a service which is no longer available.”
The Plaid Cymru-Independent administration has now decided to waive a £50 charge for its spare seats policy, which enables some pupils who don’t qualify for free home-to-school transport to get a spare seat on a bus.
This change will be backdated to September 1, 2019.
A new cross-party executive board advisory group will also be set up to review the wider home to school transport policy.
And the council will continue to press the Department for Transport and Welsh Government to allow for a change in how the new bus regulations are applied.
But opposition leader Rob James said the council should pay for affected services to be reinstated – and fund new low-emission buses of its own.
Speaking at the January 20 executive board meeting, Cllr Evans said the issue – which does not affect pupils who meet the criteria for free home-to-school transport – was not of the council’s making, and could not be solved by it alone.
At the meeting was Labour councillor Deryk Cundy, who claimed that children affected by the changes were now walking along unsafe routes – often in the dark – or using public transport which was unaffordable for many.
“This is educational discrimination by postcode,” he said.
Parents, he added, were having to change their work patterns or relying on grandparents and friends to make school trips.
“They are not interested in the politics, they just want to return to the status quo,” said Cllr Cundy.
He called on the administration to check that walking routes to school were truly safe, and to request that public bus operators amended their service timetables to help affected pupils.
Cllr Evans said routes to school have been assessed in accordance with Welsh Government guidelines, and that council officers were also working with affected schools.
She said the council spent more than £9 million per year on home to school transport for 8,500 pupils who met the criteria, and that providing transport for the county’s remaining 18,500 pupils would cost an additional £20 million.
Councils might be able to run bus services of their own in the future, subject to the progress of the Welsh Government’s Public Transport (Wales) Bill.
But Cllr Evans said challenges of cost and resources would remain.
“I fear it will not be the panacea,” she said.
Parents affected by the issue have been sharing their frustration on a Facebook group called Buses for Carmarthenshire school children.
One mother, Lisa Davies, wrote this month: “Thank you for adding me, sadly we have had to move our 14-year-old because of this, we had no way of getting him to school some days last week and with him being in his GCSE years we couldn’t risk him missing school, so he was taken out of Ysgol Y Strade on Friday and will start his new school within walking distance of our home on Monday.”
The Welsh Government has called on Westminster to simplify the whole process.
Ken Skates, Minister for Economy and Transport, has written to Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart, suggesting a blanket exemption for school transport from the new regulations.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We continue to work closely with the Department for Transport to reduce unintended consequences, as well as working with local authorities – including Carmarthenshire – to understand the full implications on school transport.”
Speaking after the executive board meeting, Labour’s Rob James said money held in the council’s reserves should fund the reinstatement of affected bus services.
He said this would cost around £400,000 and also buy time for the wider issues to be resolved.
And Cllr James put forward a £3 million plan to buy low-emission buses over the next three years.
“Having spent months consulting with colleagues across the region, and working with families to find a solution, the self-evident answer to this crisis is for Carmarthenshire Council to temporarily fund the bus services and set about establishing a long-term, sustainable solution,” he said.
“This is also an opportunity to address the poor connectivity and lack of public transport that have suffocated our county for many years.”
But Cllr Evans said reinstating affected bus services could not legally be done.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said councils have raised concerns with it about the “unintended consequences” of the new regulations.
A spokesman said the aim of the regulations was laudable, but that there was a shortage of vehicles to meet them.
The WLGA spokesman said this meant more parents having to take their children to school by car, increasing congestion and emissions.
He added: “The WLGA will seek to work with the Welsh Government and continue discussiosn with the Department for Transport to explore possible long-term, more practical solutions.”