Cost-cutting school transport changes send budget soaring

Controversial changes to cut the cost of home to school transport have proved to be a false economy, councillors were told last night (Thursday 5 December).

Instead of saving money, Brighton and Hove City Council’s home to school transport service is now £840,000 over budget.

This is despite the council employing cost-cutting consultancy Edge Public Services on a contract worth up to £499,000.

The changes to the contract caused chaos at the start of term with parents of some of the most vulnerable children in Brighton and Hove criticising the safety of the new arrangements.

The council has apologised publicly for the problems with dozens of families left without suitable transport for up to two months.

At Brighton Town Hall, Green councillor Hannah Clare said that she was disturbed by the large overspend and asked what caused it.

Deb Austin, the council’s acting director of families, children and learning, said that the changes, including “route optimisation”, had not gone to plan, “resulting in some quite significant difficulties for children, young people and their families”.

Most of the children affected have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and some were best taken to school by themselves rather than sharing journeys with others.

She added: “There was also an issue about how children were taken from the transport into the school and that resulted in an additional cost as well.”

A report to councillors said: “The impact of operators returning routes at short notice and adjustments to arrangements due to difficulties with the implementation of new home to school transport routes has meant the estimated cost of provision has increased.

“The need to act quickly has meant additional costs and higher journey prices are being charged. Approximately 50 extra journeys are now being commissioned daily.”

Conservative councillor Mary Mears told the council’s Policy and Resources Committee that she had raised home to school transport as a corporate risk at the committee’s July meeting.

She asked whether any legal steps were being taken in relation to Edge, who set up a much-criticised “dynamic purchasing system” (DPS) to save money.

Councillor Mears said: “There needs to be some clarity as to why contractors have returned routes.

“Just to make a statement does not give an indication of the problem behind it.”

She said that the council could terminate Edge’s contract if savings were not made for four months, adding: “They must have already failed. Are you going to terminate the contract?

“Edge offer if they fail to deliver the savings agreed, the council can claw back a percentage directly related to the percentage of under-delivery.

“Therefore, as they will fail 100 per cent, based on the projected overspend, will the council be clawing back 100 per cent of the fees thus far paid to Edge?”

Ms Austin said that an independent review that was due to take place next month would look at why contractors gave back routes at the start of the school year.

She also said that her department was in touch with the council’s legal team about the contract position.

Councillor John Allcock, who took over as chair of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee in September, after the problems surfaced, said: “There is an independent review and a policy panel to look at a lot of details.

“What is important to look at, in terms of finance, is the home to school transport budget has been under pressure for many years.

“In 2018-19 it was overspent by £210,000 and was on track to be overspent by £352,000 based on service pressures. So there was clearly a need to do something about it.”

In October the council said that it would set up a policy panel made up of six councillors who are expected to take evidence in public about the debacle.

The council has yet to announce the date of the first policy panel hearing.

An external review was also promised. It was expected to start this month but has been put back until the new year.

  1. Chris Reply

    So who decided to spend nearly £500K on a consultant? Doesn’t the council have anybody capable of working out the issues and a solution in-house? (I think I know the answer to that one based on the way things are run.) It might have been better to “consult” the parents and those who need the transport.
    At all levels of government nowadays it seems nobody knows how to do anything because they either haven’t been trained or have no idea of the real world. So they employ vastly overpaid “experts” and “consultants” who don’t have a clue either. The problem just carries on because it seems nobody learns from their mistakes.

  2. Ren Reply

    Chris, if the council is setting up a policy panel and commissioning an external investigation into what went wrong, it would pose serious questions about the integrity of the council and the councillors collectively if they did not shine a public light on what went wrong, how and why it went wrong and who was involved each step of the way.
    This website has reported that the the council’s PR&G committee opposed the now-tarnished ‘dynamic purchasing system’ after ‘soft market testing’ because there are too few local suppliers to ensure enough effective competition to cut prices.
    Nobody is suggesting that this episode exposes corruption, but it reeks of arrogance, incompetence and stubbornness. When an officer was unable push through a flawed decision, he or she (he, I believe) pushed on regardless, calling on consultants to provide a figleaf of cover and timing the decision-making process to exclude politicians. This also had the effect of reducing the time for implementation, including proper background checks, as well as reducing time for training and acclimatisation. After all, the contract involves careful handling of children with a wide range of complex needs – something the officer or officers in question ought to have known better than almost anyone else.
    What’s the betting though that the council will try to cover up the cock up and protect the officer or officers involved in spite of the resulting harm to public confidence in the council and its councillors.

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