NORTH Yorkshire has the backing of its MPs to find a solution to a legal challenge which threatens to cost the Council over £300,000 and potentially disrupt home- to- school transport provision for hundreds of students.

Providing free home-to-school transport for eligible pupils is a statutory duty for councils and like many other in the country, North Yorkshire allows pupils who don’t qualify for free transport, to buy empty seats on a first-come-first-served basis.

Across the county there are 900 children who buy these spare places. It is a long-standing arrangement which provides convenience for families and additional income to support the service. This arrangement is now in jeopardy.

The council faces a private legal challenge from a disability rights campaigner who is arguing that where the council sells a spare seat on a school bus the bus must then be wheelchair accessible. Most buses operated by companies under contract to the Council to provide home to school transport , are not suitable for wheelchairs as they are from older fleets or are otherwise used as tour coaches.

The private challenge is testing the current legislation. Buses used for free home to school transport do not need to be able to accommodate wheelchairs so if North Yorkshire was not charging for the spare seats it would be legally compliant; but because it offers up spare places to paying students it is at risk of unwittingly contravening Equality Act regulations.

“These home to school transport arrangements are widely used by councils up and down the land,” said Cllr Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire’s Executive Member for Access. “We, along with many other councils, have believed that home to school transport was exempt from the regulations. The regulations were designed for commercial bus services and it cannot have been the intention of the law that simply selling one or two spare seats on home to school transport should mean buses then have to be accessible. Selling spare seats provides a safe and convenient service for pupils not eligible for free transport, helps to reduce congestion and also generates valuable income to the council of over £300,000 each year.

“Supporting students with special educational needs and disabilities is a priority for North Yorkshire and we run our own fleet of wheelchair accessible mini buses and use wheelchair accessible taxis whenever needed. We have provided our home-to-school services in good faith and always believed we complied with our equality duties.”

Home-to-school transport is provided through contracts with coach operators and most vehicles used currently are not capable of transporting wheelchairs. Companies would face very significant costs if they had to secure different vehicles or adapt existing vehicles and these costs would then be passed to the County Council, and then to council tax payers.

At its meeting on 3rd September North Yorkshire’s Executive will consider a range of proposals to address the challenge with recommendations to continue to transport children in spare seats who are not entitled to free transport and to stop charging them while the council seeks clarification from the DfT that the existing method is lawful.

In the absence of clarification or change in the legal framework, it is proposed that the council will have to consider whether it will withdraw this discretionary service from the start of the 2020/21 academic year, or whether it is able to continue to make spare spaces available free of charge.

Cllr Mackenzie said: “This challenge to current practice will cost the Council over £300,000 every year in lost income to the service and may ultimately result in significant disruption and inconvenience for 900 children and their families if they are no longer able to travel in these spare seats.

“Ironically it will do little if anything to improve access to home to school transport for disabled children. We are appealing to the DfT to intervene and apply common sense to settle this issue as a matter of some urgency.”