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Ombudsman warns councils on impact of changes to school transport policy

A local authority has agreed to reverse its decision to withdraw free school travel from a boy attending a faith school, following a Local Government Ombudsman investigation.

The boy's family had been told by Birmingham City Council in a formal letter that when he started senior school in 2012 he would receive a travel pass until July 2017.

The authority conducted a review of its school transport policy and decided it would no longer offer free home-to-school transport for new applicants from January 2013.

But it also informed the boy that his support had been withdrawn. His family have been forced to pay his transport costs since September 2013.

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They contacted their MP, who approached Birmingham on their behalf. The council responded that the letter did not form a legally binding contract.

An investigation by the LGO concluded, however, that the family had a legitimate expectation that the boy would receive free home-to-school transport for five years as the commitment in the letter they received was precise and not open-ended.

The Ombudsman also said the family had good cause to believe that any future decision about transport would only apply to new applicants and not to them.

The LGO, Dr Jane Martin, recommended that Birmingham:

  • apologise to the boy’s mother for the injustice caused by fault;
  • reinstate the free home-to-school transport from the date when his current travel pass expires until July 2017;
  • pay the mother’s school transport costs for the boy between the date it withdrew it and the date when his current travel pass expires;
  • pay the mother £100 for her time and trouble in having to pursue the complaint; and
  • offer the same remedy for two others similarly affected who appealed in respect of the periods between the council’s withdrawal of free home-to-school transport and the dates stated in its previous offers.

Birmingham has agreed to carry out the recommendations.

Dr Martin said: “I would urge other councils in a similar position to check carefully whether they’ve made any firm commitments to families about school transport funding to ensure that they do not promise a service they might not be able to deliver in future. While councils are entitled to review their policies, as per statutory guidance, it is not right that families suffer if they backtrack on a commitment.

“The council was aware, at the time of writing to the family with a dated promise, that there may be future cost implications and officers could have clearly explained that the offer could be subject to review. Had the authority done so I may not have found fault with its decision.”

A copy of the LGO report can be viewed here.


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