Are lessons from Brighton and Hove’s £1m school transport fiasco being ignored?

Posted On 15 Jun 2020 at 1:34 pm

The council risks repeating the mistakes that led to a £1 million overspend on home to school transport, put children’s safety at risk and left others stranded, according to two senior councillors.

The claim underpins a letter from former council leader Mary Mears and her Conservative colleague Lee Wares to fellow councillors.

They said that almost a year after the chaos and cost overruns that characterised the new service, Brighton and Hove City Council had still not produced a business case.

This oversight – the lack of a business case – was criticised in an independent report by the Local Government Association (LGA) about the changes to the home to school transport service.

Councillor Mears and Councillor Wares said, in a letter to the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, that they welcomed extra money for the service.

But more money did not mean that they no longer had concerns about the transport arrangements for some of Brighton and Hove’s most vulnerable children.

In particular, children at two schools catering for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) had born the brunt of what was recently described as an “epic failure”. The schools worst affected were Hill Park, in Portslade, and Downs View, in Woodingdean.

Contrary to a decision by senior councillors, officials employed a cost-cutting consultancy, Edge Public Solutions, to scrap traditional four-year contracts.

Instead, contracts for scores of taxi and minibus routes were awarded using a “dynamic purchasing system” which was criticised as being more suitable for ordering stationery than transporting vulnerable children.

Councillor Mears and Councillor Wares said: “While we would not deny the increases to benefit the children and families, these increases were needed to help put right a badly designed and badly procured service.

“A criticism of the LGA was that no business case was produced for the service change. A business case has still not been produced.

“There has been no post-implementation review and no exercise carried out to assess if the service is delivering value for money.

“Increases based on just the budget levels set by other local authorities are meaningless unless there is a review of the absolute detail so that service delivery and procurement can be analysed against cost – not just how much money has been put in the pot.

“There hasn’t been a review to compare the cost of the service before the change versus post the change. Budget increases might have been necessary, but to what level, nobody knows.”

They were also concerned that the extra cash was being spent on a contract arrangement that was rejected by councillors but brought in by officials using “urgency powers”.

These are the same urgency powers that officials are relying on to make quick decisions during the coronavirus crisis.

This made it all the more important for the Labour administration and senior officials to understand what went wrong and how – as well as to identify who was responsible – not least since an internal audit report gave the process a clean bill of health.

Councillor Mears and Councillor Wares said: “Much emphasis has been placed on remedying the problems, and rightly so, (but) there remains the need to investigate why this happened.

“There needs to be culpability that will help rebuild trust and confidence.

“How were delegated powers used? How were contracts with consultants and operators facilitated? How were financial levels complied with?
“And why – when a previous committee report said no to a DPS (dynamic purchasing system) – was one pursued without any work apparently being done on the procurement model that was approved.

“What happened in respect of Edge Public Solutions and the pay-off of £181,000?

“And why did the internal audit differ so fundamentally to the content of the LGA report?

“All these subjects need fully investigating and may, regardless of anything else, determine the way forward.”

Councillor Mary Mears

The two councillors said: “Is the way the service now being delivered the right model? Early thinking is that it is not and that the council sought to fix something that was not broken.

“The change in 2019 was radical but it now requires great effort and bravery to think again.

“A hybrid of pre and post change might be a solution, but a significant influencer is that of political policy.

“The administration needs to quickly decide if it wishes to pursue an in-house solution to rid itself of so-called ‘petty bourgeois monopolies’ or work in partnership with local businesses.

“There is the constant reference to four-year contracts (but) the council can terminate with three months’ notice and the operators giving even less notice.

“There remains the reluctance to accept that operator investment in the infrastructure to deliver the service, such as procuring specialised vehicles, requires a level of contract duration certainty.

“With the history of the problems and the present political direction, that certainty may not exist which places the service at risk.”

Councillor Lee Wares

The two Conservative councillors criticised the council for “scattering reports to various places”, relying on the defence that “time is of the essence”.

They said: “We do acknowledge that covid-19 has had an impact.”

But they added that there were “significant issues around the lack of member involvement” as the council created this “self-inflicted problem”.

And they accused the administration of lacking ambition and “hedging its bets” in aiming to win the trust and confidence of “a mere 80 per cent” of parents and carers.

Another reading of the target was that the council was content that 20 per cent of parents and carers would not have trust and confidence in them.

They said: “Twenty per cent is equal to no trust or confidence affecting 94 children based on 470 being transported.”

The letter from the two councillors is included in the agenda papers for the “virtual” meeting of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee that is due to start at 4pm today (Monday 15 June).

The meeting is scheduled to be webcast on the council’s website.

  1. Rob Arbery Reply

    Culpability and making either the procedure or person/ persons responsible for this mess is what will give all the parents trust back in the system and that after some apologies from Cllr Allcock this isn’t all swept away and that real and lasting lessons are learnt.

  2. Michael Safeen Reply

    I think Home transport services doing a great job a the moment, specially under the covid-19 impact. it showed that the new team dealing with the situation professionally,the budget could be affected to keep social distancing inside transportation. Re-tendering is a bear-trap as the service stabled now The service has been through enough period of turbulence.

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