Perton Parents Still Waiting for Bus Justice
by Chris Fewtrell
(Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate for South Staffordshire)
Our Prime Minister loves his buses. As Mayor of London he introduced the New Routemaster to the streets of the capital – though we won’t talk about the dodgy ventilation, questionable environmental credentials or soaring costs. And we all know from the Referendum campaign that buses are his favourite propaganda vehicle. He even likes to put one in the background of his Prime Ministerial broadcasts. And ask him any question you like, whether it be about the Benn Act, taxpayers’ money for pole-dancing tech entrepreneurs or racist slurs in his newspaper columns, chances are he’ll end up telling you how much he likes a good bus.
Parents in Perton are fond of buses too. They’d like their children to have free, safe bus travel to their nearest High School, the promise to build such a school in their own community long since reneged upon. Given the busy, dangerous roads that comprise the route, it’s a reasonable enough request you’d think. But in its wisdom, Tory controlled Staffordshire County Council decreed that only those living more than three miles from Codsall were entitled to free travel, with the line of eligibility slicing through the community completely at random. And so you had the absurd situation where a resident of Sandown Drive could put his child on the school bus free of charge, while his next door neighbour had to find an eye-watering £625 a year, in the knowledge their child could be bumped off the bus at any time should a child from outside the three mile ‘exclusion zone’ apply for a seat! Just stop and think about that. Pupils living a matter of yards apart could board the same school bus, at the very same stop, but some had to pay, and some did not. A family with two children at the school had to find £1,250. Nearly £2,000 if they had three children enrolled. These are financially crippling sums for ordinary families.
This was the long-standing injustice many, many parents had to face, only for the Council to then add insult to injury by withdrawing the option to buy a seat under the so-called Vacant Seat Scheme altogether. It means working parents no longer have any school transport option at all, even though Codsall High is the nearest appropriate school for their children. Those outside of three miles can get a bus, free of charge. Those inside must fend for themselves.
And so, the policy has the effect of artificially dividing a close-knit community that is very much a single, distinct entity, an island of sorts in terms of its proximity to other population centres. Any common sense evaluation of a practical eligibility boundary would clearly include the whole of Perton in the free travel area. But common sense is a virtue seemingly alien to the County Council and, indeed, the Department for Education. Because if it were not, they would recognise that the walk from Perton to Codsall High School is not a suitable one for unaccompanied children.
Any pupil seeking to walk from the village to Codsall has to negotiate a wide, complex junction with the A41, which teems with cars, vans, lorries and lumbering agricultural vehicles, a trunk road where traffic frequently exceeds the 50 mph limit. The crossing itself sees traffic coming from all directions, with some access points virtually blind due to overgrown hedges. But that’s only one of the dangers. The long walk down Heath House Lane is via a pavement that is narrow, uneven and riddled with potholes. There’s no pavement at all on some stretches, forcing the children to walk the busy, commuter choked road. On other occasions, pavement runs out to be continued on the other side of the road, meaning kids must navigate the traffic, in near darkness at some times of year, due to the inadequate street lighting. Tractors and lorries are often seen mounting the pavement to pass oncoming vehicles where the road narrows. Yet still, Gavin Williamson’s Education Department refuses to be more specific about the Unsafe Route Eligibility criteria which would permit a relaxation of the free travel rules. The woolly clause in the DFE guidance enables cash-strapped Councils to drive an HGV through the guidelines if they so choose. It’s an opportunity the Conservative controlled Staffordshire County Council has seized with alacrity. They have the discretion to relax the rules, but they will not.
And the risks don’t end there. Walking alongside the heavy traffic on the route exposes children to air pollution – and because they are literally closer to the ground, exhaust fumes impact children more than adults. Exposure to the particulates given off by vehicle emissions can stunt the growth of children’s lungs by up to five per cent, while the University of Sheffield calculated some children in that city were inhaling damaging fumes equivalent to the consumption of twenty cigarettes a week on their way into school.
Small wonder then that parents in Perton are unwilling to let their children take these risks and are instead driving them into school. But this, of course, increases traffic congestion, it increases pollution levels. At a time when we are trying to encourage people onto public transport to take the pressure off our crumbling roads, when we are desperately trying to cut carbon emissions, when a single free school bus might take thirty or forty vehicles off the road at a stroke, the County Council’s policy seems like madness.
Thanks to the tireless work and campaigning of the mothers who created Perton Action for Safe School Travel, the County Council cannot claim ignorance as a justification, and neither can Gavin Williamson. When he was still Defence Secretary he joined a protest walk along the route, in the course of which a Parish Councillor was actually clipped by a vehicle! He knows the dangers first hand and, at the time, pledged solidarity with the Perton mums. He made all the right noises, undertook to do all he could to remedy the injustice. And then he became the Secretary of State for Education. Suddenly, he was in exactly the right place to do something, not just to help parents in Perton, but also in Pattingham, where Sixth Formers are denied free travel to Codsall High. (Because of a ludicrous gap in policy, 16-18 year olds are now compelled to stay in some form of education, but are NOT entitled to free travel to their nearest available school, no matter how far away they live.) Gavin Williamson knows all of this, knows the same situation exists up and down the country, but now he claims there’s nothing he can do to help. One can’t help thinking it’s rather easier to hitch a free ride on a political bandwagon than it is a school bus. Because I ask Mr. Williamson a very simple question. If you, as the Secretary of State for Education can’t help these parents, just who can?
The women of Perton Action for Safe School Travel are the real heroines in this story. They have fought relentlessly for their children’s rights and taken the case all the way to the Local Government Ombudsman. I urge you all to click on the link below and sign their petition. I have written a letter to the Ombudsman in support of their appeal and I can promise them that the Liberal Democrats stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their fight to overturn this short-sighted, dangerous policy decision by the County Council. I have pledged we will assist them in any way we can, because it should not take the death or serious injury of a child to finally force the powers that be – Gavin Williamson included - to end this glaring and historic injustice.