'Crazy' school transport budget leaves Central Bedfordshire Council facing an £8.8million budget overspend

Educational transport cost was more than £18m this year, meeting told
Central Bedfordshire Council.Central Bedfordshire Council.
Central Bedfordshire Council.

Soaring educational transport costs have contributed to Central Bedfordshire Council facing a potential £8.8m budget overspend in the current financial year, a meeting heard.

“Let’s be honest … it’s not very good,” Independent Aspley and Woburn councillor and executive member for finance John Baker told the local authority’s corporate resources overview and scrutiny committee.

“It’s £8.8m overspent after the release of contingency,” he explained. “The key drivers for this are the usual suspects, such as educational transport, which has increased per quarter.

“We can’t wait until the next financial year before we start doing something about the nearly £9m potential overspend.

“The chief executive has put a hiring freeze in place with an exception process, so officer posts have to be cleared by the corporate management team.

“There’ll be a review of all vacant roles and efforts just to reduce expenditure, even the building maintenance if it’s not needed.

“Cross cutting is fed into this with £4m from efficiencies not being made. I’m asking questions about that. This rolls back a number of years.

“It’s a very difficult time and sets the backdrop for the budget. It’s going to be a dark moment when that appears. We figure out next year we won’t be spending less than this year,” he added.

“On educational transport, in the year ending March 2020 we spent about £10m. It went down to £9.5, back up to £10m again, then around £13m and it’s more than £18m this year.

“To double the actual spend in four years means we ask some significant questions. Have we really doubled the number of pupils requiring expensive transport?

“What’s the breakdown in terms of mainstream, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) taxis, buses?

“We’re considering some policy changes at executive in December, but those take time to bed in and if approved wouldn’t be active until September 2025.”

Independent Biggleswade West councillor Hayley Whitaker agreed the educational transport budget “is crazy”, saying: “It’s driven largely by an increasing number of children with SEND and the statutory obligation to get them to school.

“Partly what’s causing this is our lack of SEND spaces. We’re looking even further (afield) for special school places. The longer it becomes to travel, the bigger the expenditure.

“The only answer is to build more SEND provision as quickly as we can. The way to address it is to have more spaces where we can teach children as close to home as possible, which is what we’re striving to do.”

Independent Leighton Linslade West councillor Victoria Harvey said: “At the end of quarter one, we had a rosy picture. What happened in the following three months?

“We had no figures at children’s services last week. The next day we get told of the overspend. A big capital spend on SEND could be fantastic, if it reduces the revenue outgoings on transport.

“But we missed that scrutiny committee by 24 hours and I find that extraordinary.”

Councillor Baker replied: “When the quarter one report arrived, the data showed the deterioration in the council’s finances heading into quarter two.”

The committee agreed officers continue to take the necessary action to mitigate the overspend.