Cameron's school buses face the axe

Embarrassment for Tory leader as council poised to cut pioneering service

Home Affairs Editor,Robert Verkaik
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:42

A pioneering school-bus scheme personally backed by David Cameron as part of a Tory policy to stop parents driving their children to school, is to be scrapped by a flagship Tory council. The fleet of 22 yellow Pegasus buses, which ferry hundreds of children between 14 schools, was piloted in 2006 before a high-profile launch attended by the Conservative leader.

Since then, the scheme has been heralded as a ground-breaking initiative that has cut traffic and reduced carbon emissions. It has been so successful that a delegation from Japan travelled to Britain to see how it worked. But now Surrey County Council is to end the service to save £800,000 a year.

When Mr Cameron attended the launch in Guildford three years ago, he praised the new US-style buses. He said: "If you make it an attractive alternative then people will be quite happy to get out of their cars. But I know what it's like; you know as a parent you're worried about your children. You want to know it's a good, safe, clean, reliable alternative. Provide that and you can actually reduce congestion on the roads. In America, 50 per cent of children go to school on school buses. In this country, it's just 6 per cent. There's far more that we can do and it's a really exciting agenda and one that I'm determined that the Conservative party is going to pursue."

Mr Cameron later announced he was launching a working group on school buses. The group, made up of councillors and Tory parliamentary spokesmen on transport and education, pledged to cut congestion and help the environment. The Tory leader said the party would aim to provide "a much better range of choices for parents" who drive their children to school. The scrapping of the buses has been attacked by parents, schools and environmental groups.

David Evans, head teacher at Tillingbourne School, near Guildford, said: "This is a fantastic service that develops pupil independence and provides affordable convenient transport for parents. It is well-loved by all and the environmental, traffic congestion and safety implications are horrendous if it is closed. This is one step forward, five steps back." One parent, Rachael Hill, added: "I have two kids on the bus and I dread to think of the environmental impact on Surrey if all the extra parents' cars are hitting the roads at rush-hour. I am livid as are lots of other people; I think the decision is terrible. It was something that was really sustainable, a beacon of good practice and it's going to be got rid of."

Ian Lake, the county council's cabinet member for transport, said: "Sometimes the council has to make tough financial decisions and this is particularly the case in the present economic climate. It is essential that we provide the maximum value for money for Surrey's taxpayers and this service is now costing us nearly £8 a day for each pupil.

"Every school day, we spend more than £5,000 running these buses, yet only about 1 per cent of Surrey's primary school pupils use them. We are subsidising the service to the tune of £821,000 a year, and clearly it is crazy to continue paying such a huge sum on the school run for such a small number of Surrey's primary pupils. But it is important to make it clear that we will continue to provide school transport for the 147 pupils who are entitled to free travel and have been using Pegasus."

A decision on whether to follow the recommendation will be made this week a county council cabinet meeting. This year, the Audit Commission rated Surrey among the four worst-performing county council in England and Wales.

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