Councillor Patricia Stallard, the County Council’s Executive Lead Member for Children’s Services and Young People, said: “We have listened to the feedback to our proposal from parents, carers stakeholders and the wider local community. Additionally, it has also become evident that an external stakeholder in the project has indicated that they would now oppose the proposals, on the basis that the route improvements would be in conflict with the Heath’s status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
“We have concluded that, at this time, it would not be the right thing to do to pursue the proposals especially given the potential cost to the public purse in fighting a legal action. However, we must ensure that the savings required of the County Council can still be met to fulfil our legal obligation to deliver a balanced budget by 2021. This means that, across Children’s Services, savings still need to be found and the approximate £250,000 per year savings, that could have been generated by replacing the Local Authority funded home to school transport with a walking route, will now, regrettably, have to be found from other areas, including services for the county’s most vulnerable children.”
Councillor Stallard added: “The County Council will be strongly lobbying government for an urgent reform to the laws which determine eligibility for Home to School Transport. Under the current legislation Hampshire County Council is required to subsidise free Home to School Transport to the tune of £32 million per year – a sum that far exceeds the amount that the Council is able to spend on social workers, specialist support for schools and other priorities. In many cases this transport subsidy is to families that could well afford to pay for bus fares. Much of this money could be better used to support vulnerable children and the council will continue to press government hard for urgent reform.”
In the longer term, if the town of Hook grows as some envisage, Hampshire County Council will also need to consider the configurations of education in the local area.
Legally, transport must be provided for children over 8 years old who live three miles or more from their nearest school or, for shorter distances, if there is no safe walking route to the school.
The proposals were initiated in order to contribute to the County Council’s savings requirements of £80m by 2021. The Authority currently spends £32 million on home to school transport in Hampshire – a significant proportion of its entire Children’s Services budget.
Providing home to school transport for pupils in Hook, who live under three miles away from the school, currently costs the County Council over £250,000. To help reduce the pressures on funding for Children’s Services, a one-off investment in an all-weather walking route had been proposed, which would also benefit the wider local community. Once constructed, an option for families to pay for seats on a bus would have been available.
It was proposed that the route would make use of an existing Rights of Way footpath on Bartley Heath and Holt Lane and include use of the footbridge north of Junction 5 of the M3 to cross over the motorway.