South Lanarkshire Council leader Eddie McAvoy
South Lanarkshire Council leader Eddie McAvoy

SOUTH Lanarkshire Council’s Leader today announced that free bus travel to school would

continue for thousands of pupils.

Eddie McAvoy revealed he had moved to reverse a savings plan that would have taken away free travel from children who live less than three miles from secondary school.

While three miles is in line with national guidelines, South Lanarkshire currently operates a two mile limit. That limit will now continue.

And in Clydesdale, campaigners who had fought against the cuts branding the route from Kirkfieldbank to Lanark Grammar, along narrow pavement and up Kirkfieldbank Brae as dangerous, were jubilant.

“I am absolutely thrilled that the school buses are safe, that children will not be expected to walk up to 30 miles a week in all weathers,” said Kirkfieldbank mum Julia Marrs.

“This is huge relief to many families and shows that public opinion has won the day, forcing South Lanarkshire Council to listen to their constituents and protect the most vulnerable in society.

“A huge Thank you!goes to all who supported myself and other campaigners across South Lanarkshire, notably Aileen Campbell MSP, Christina McKelvie MSP, Angela Crawley MP, Dr Lisa Cameron MP, all of SNP Clydesdale and SLC SNP group who stood firm against the decision.”

But she added; “My delight is tempered by the fact that small numbers of children are still forced to walk dangerous routes within the two mile cut off.

“One such example is Kirkfieldbank Brae, a busy trunk road with a very steep gradient.

“We need the guidelines for safe walking routes to be updated and take common sense into account so that all our kids are safe on their way to and from school.”

Announcing the decision, Mr McAvoy said that, despite a cut in funding from the Scottish Government, he had decided to scrap the change following a public consultation on the council’s budget.

The Council Leader is also recommending that other savings be scrapped from the budget plans, including social work closures, and cuts to funding for gala days and Christmas lighting.

In total, the changes will remove £5.4m in savings and save 195 jobs.

He said: “We never wanted to change the school bus travel arrangements but the proposals were brought forward because we have already been forced to find £90m of savings in recent years, and we have £43.1m more to agree in 2016/17.

“It’s been well-documented that the Scottish Government has cut local authority funding at a time when, if anything, even more people need our services. So every cut we are forced to make is painful because there is a real risk it will hurt someone.

“However, we listen to what local people say, and it is clear that families were genuinely worried about the impact on kids of having to walk up to three miles to school and back every day. The recent storms have just reinforced my view that we had to change the plan.

“South Lanarkshire Council has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in our children by building what is arguably the best schools estate anywhere in Europe. Having done that, we want to ensure that our pupils are able to perform to the best of their abilities once they get to these fantastic new schools.”

Mr McAvoy has written to every parent or guardian who corresponded with him about the issue during the consultation. He explained that at next Wednesday’s meeting of the Executive Committee the majority Labour Group would move that the school bus changes should be dropped, leaving the current arrangements in place.

The council had already delayed general implementation to give all parents time to consider their options, and in his letter to parents, Mr McAvoy said: “I always hoped to go further and so instructed council officers to look for ways to fund a total change of policy. Working together, we have been able to do this.

And he said that he regarded any changes to the free buses as being ‘off the agenda’ for the foreseeable future.”

The secondary school transport changes were presented to councillors in 2015/16 but full implementation was delayed until April 2016. At next week’s Executive Committee the council administration will also move to remove a number of other savings proposals from the 2016/17 budget.

These include the proposed closure of The Coalyard tearoom, kitchen and laundry in Larkhall, which provides learning and employment opportunities for young people with additional support needs. It will now remain open, as will associated cafe facilities in other towns.

Other changes include scrapping plans to cut funding for psychological services, the Youth Learning Service and Integrated Children’s Service, plus gala day subsidies and festive lighting. They will also halt increases in sports charges for under-16s groups, and charges for cultural activities for under-5s and over-60s.

In all, the administration’s changes will result in £5,374,000 in savings being removed from current proposals and will prevent 195.5 FTE job losses. Papers to the Executive Committee outline plans to balance the budget by using an under spend in 2015/16 including improved income from Council Tax collection rates.