Confusion reigns over Highland bus service

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A report on school bus travel had Highland councillors scratching their heads at last week’s economy and infrastructure committee.

Opposition councillors asked why Highland Council is looking at service cuts just as the Scottish Government is funding free bus travel for under-22s.

The council brought in external consultants to look at its school bus service. Their report included a number of ideas for improvement as well as cost cutting measures.

Some of the headline proposals include paying parents to take their own children to school, offering cycling as alternative transport and training inhouse and community bus drivers.

However, money saving was also a strong theme throughout.

The school buses report suggested a review of dual catchment areas for Highland schools. It also flagged up the high cost of school bus transport for children with additional support needs. The consultants suggest a review of service for these children, as well as proposing enhanced vehicle testing and driver training.

Officers stressed that any review of catchment areas or services for children with additional support needs would go through the education service. This report specifically deals with the procurement and running of bus services rather than policy.

Adding to the confusion, a separate paper to the committee outlined the Scottish Government plan to fund free bus travel for under-22s.

Councillor Derek Louden said: ‘If people under 22 can travel for free from February 1 2022, and the Scottish Government will pay for that, it’s potentially a very useful source of savings.’

He questioned then why service cuts are on the table, arguing it should make the case for service improvement.

However, transport officers were cautious. Transport planner David Summers said COSLA is in talks with Scottish Government but the council is ‘not yet sure’ if the scheme will be fully funded.

Mr Summers added that ‘A concessionary scheme does not deliver more buses’.

For example, pensioners in Edinburgh can catch a free bus every few minutes, while pensioners in Durness could wait all day.

This prompted Councillor Ken Gowans to ask: ‘Are we prepared for this? There’s free bus travel but not enough buses or enough bus drivers.’

Members agreed their request that more information should come forward to the next committee meeting.