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Council 'held to ransom' over school bus hitch

By Scott Maclennan

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Two bus companies demanded more money from Highland Council to provide vital services.
Two bus companies demanded more money from Highland Council to provide vital services.

Plans to return Highland children to school next week hit a last-minute hitch when bus operators demanded extra cash.

The 11th hour demands from two major bus companies forced cash-strapped Highland Council to pay out more.

The firms, which have not been named, threatened to walk out on their contracts for vital school and public routes, potentially leaving thousands of pupils and workers stranded.

A leading councillor reacted angrily and said that the timing of the demands was particularly disappointing.

It left the local authority – already under huge pressure from the Scottish Government – with little choice but to cough up.

The council is particularly frustrated as it had to continue to pay the contracts even though no children and few passengers were using the buses – while the companies themselves were free to furlough staff and seek government support.

Councillors agreed to increase the amount the bus operators will get – which will be reviewed in October – after the ultimatum from the bus companies.

Council deputy leader Alasdair Christie said the local authority’s good faith in honouring payments had been ignored.

“The council has received the news that two significant operators of the school transport contract asked to increase their prices due to the impact of Covid-19,” he said.

Councillor Alasdair Christie.
Councillor Alasdair Christie.

“This was disappointing to learn for a few reasons. One, we have been in partnership with these companies for a number of years, secondly we had paid them throughout the Covid-19 period even though there were no children to be transported, in line with Scottish Government wishes.

“In addition, we are aware that they would have received subsidies directly from Scottish Government for their concessionary fares and we have no information to confirm or to deny whether they furloughed their staff.

“So with these factors it is disappointing that the council found itself in a position of approving an increase in the prices we have to pay in order to protect rural public routes and contracts to enable the children to get to school.

“The timing of this was not helpful as we prepare the return to school of tens of thousands of children to have this thrown in at the 11th hour so I am cross with the action taken by the operators and wish that we hadn’t had to take such evasive action so quickly.”

A council spokesman said: “Ensuring that children are able to get to school safely and reliably remains a key focus of the preparation for the return of education.

“The council has agreed an interim position which will be reviewed before October.

“It is not possible to provide further comment on contractual discussions which are subject to commercial confidentiality.”

The latest plans to get pupils back in classrooms from Wednesday were being presented to councillors as the Courier went to print. Additional coronavirus-related measures are expected to cost £11.6 million.

The council is investigating fitting protective screens to some buses that transport pupils as well as the public. It is understood this could help buses carry more passengers.

Pupils will not be asked to wear face coverings or socially distance on dedicated school buses.

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