£657k cost rise feared as fresh operator planned for 40 school bus contracts
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
Dozens of school bus routes in Suffolk will be run by one of the council's wholly-owned companies from September, after the collapse of existing arrangements - and could cost more than half a million pounds more to run.
Suffolk Norse served notice of its joint arrangement with Suffolk County Council for 40 school bus routes, as well as services which transport pupils to swimming lessons across the county, in September last year.
The council's cabinet on Tuesday agreed to a new contract with Vertas, a company it owns 100% of, for those routes to begin from the new school year in September 2021, in order for enough time to make the necessary arrangements.
The authority said that arrangement includes the transfer of staff, buses and depots to Vertas.
Andrew Reid, Conservative cabinet member for transport, said that Suffolk Norse had faced "economic challenges" which resulted in a revised proposal being tabled with the authority, which he claims would have resulted in "significant increased costs for the council".
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The council rejected that proposal, which prompted Suffolk Norse to serve notice on its contract.
Mr Reid said that the Vertas contract will result in those contracts, which cater for around 1,100 school pupils out of the 12,000 to receive school transport in the county, costing between £33,000 and £657,000 more than it did in 2019/20. That figure won't be known until the fleet of buses has been inspected and final costs for that have been tallied.
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However, Mr Reid said: "Suffolk County Council has a statutory obligation to provide home-to-school transport for entitled children," and added: "Faced with the dilemma of increased costs and the real potential of not having sufficient provision in September 2021, the county council have no choice but to look at alternatives."
He added that the increased cost still represented better value for money than those tabled by Suffolk Norse.
Vertas has run mini bus services to select schools for the last three years.
Conservative cabinet member for finance, Gordon Jones, added that the increased costs will be funded from the risk reserve, with the Vertas proposal proving the "least financial and operational risk to the council".
According to the authority, the contract was not put out to tender for other companies to bid for because it was felt some of those 40 routes could be left without a provider, and said that an exemption in procurement laws meant Vertas could be contracted because it is a company within the authority's control.
However, an open letter penned by Ipswich Buses, Stephensons and Galloway, said: "The proposal and recommendations make little sense, either to the council taxpayers in Suffolk, or to operators who have seen their businesses hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and who have ample spare capacity to take this work on."
The letter said that a tender process with existing bus operators would deliver the best cost for contracts and the proposal to switch to Vertas was "not in the best interests of council taxpayers".
Labour group leader Sarah Adams backed the call for a full bidding process, and added: "I really do think this should properly go out to tender and if we are doing the best for the Suffolk taxpayer we should get the best value."
Penny Otton, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, said: "I am concerned that by awarding a contract with the current [school transport] policies in situ, will there be a situation where after the election and the new education scrutiny committee look at the school transport policy, there may in fact be issues that the new contract will not be able to deal with?"