Am Bratach No. 243
January 2012

Council transport contracts revised
by George Farlow

During 2011 Highland Council has been going through the process of re-tendering public transport contracts. Any bus service which exists because of a taxpayers’ subsidy has been up for grabs — apparently for anyone across Europe who feels they could run the North West omnibus. The new contracts all start on January 1 2012 or at least it is hoped that they start then, but there are many issues left to resolve.

Highland Council’s transport unit has also re-tendered the school bus contracts. This will mean at least two changes at the start of the new term: only children living within the school catchment area will be allowed on the bus and of those only children outwith a two mile distance from the school will have free transport.

In the past many operators and council officers have allowed a concession to parents and children so that they could leave home a lot later than if they were walking and get to school by bus using the “spare” places.

The new tender specifications mean that technically there are no spare places as the bus companies presumably will put on the smallest possible bus. The council must be expecting that the savings in diesel, lower maintenance, and the ability to choose from a larger pool of drivers will reflect in keener competition for the service contracts. Although this may result in a reduced carbon footprint for the council there will be an increased one for hundreds of parents and childminders across the Highland Council area.

Of course, children can walk and probably should. I know you walked when you were wee as did I walk the couple of miles to school to spend my bus fare on football cards. Indeed, we need to encourage children into a healthier frame of mind and body. But, as Shakespeare rightly recalls, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeps like snail unwillingly to school. Let’s hope they get there by dinner time.

But, for many parents it will be just an additional hassle on the daily grind in the rural Highlands as those on desktops far away show a lack of understanding and a poverty of ambition for Sutherland.

I suspect this exercise has cost more in the first year to implement than the actual savings and reverting to policy could have been carried out in a more people-friendly manner and more positive approach could have been taken to starting the day with a brisk walk.

There will be added traffic issues on single track roads, in school parking areas, children turning up drenched at school and course problems for Highers students. Just to save a pittance out of the £1 billion-plus budget of the new adult and children’s services committee? Transport integration in Highlands has been set back five years by this short-sightedness. We can do better locally.

George Farlow (SNP) represents Central and North West Sutherland on Highland Council.


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