Council predicts big overspend on school transport budget

Essex County Council

Essex County Council - Credit: Archant

Essex County Council is predicting a £2million overspend in its home to school transport budget – four years after cost-saving initiatives were implemented.

The council says the policy - introduced in 2015 - is necessary to save a predicted £3.7 million in four years.

However, the council has said there have been benefits, but the number of children with special educational needs (SEN) has rocketed to unprecedented levels.

SEN transport is estimated to cost Essex County Council (ECC) £65million over four years.

The number of children in receipt of education health and care plans (ECHPs) in Essex increased between 2015 and 2018.

This increasing demographic is bringing increased budgetary challenges to the authority - leading to a rise from £14million in 2019/20 to almost £19million in 2022/23.

Nationally in the period 2015 to 2018 there was a 47 per cent increase, whereas in the period 2010 to 2014 the increase was only four per cent.

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Labour's Julie Young said: "We went through a considerable amount of pain for those students and families affected by the decision which was taken in 2014 to move from a catchment school allocation to a nearest school allocation.

"We were told at the time this was going to save us lots of money. However, it is a pressure that has continued to blight the authority.

"Is place scrutiny going to have another look at school transport because clearly the methodology and the route that has been taken has not saved the money that had been anticipated."

Cllr Gagan Mohindra, cabinet member for finance, said: "I know that school transport remains a national issue. This continues to be a cost burden on this authority.

"There does not seem to be a simple answer. Officers in education, alongside finance are working hard to come up with some more sustainable solutions."

Kevin Mitchell, a senior financial officer, said: "There has been some financial savings. But what we are seeing now is a significant increase in SEN demands.

"It is a complex issue and it is something that we see rippling across many budgets."

In June Cllr Ray Gooding, cabinet member for education, said the overall costs had gone down by much more.

In 2018/19, the council spent £2m less on mainstream home to school transport, when compared to 2014/15.

It was decided for the place scrutiny committee to look into the issue in detail.