Concern raised over potential £657k rise as operator change planned for Suffolk school contracts

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Suffolk Norse operates a mixed fleet of coaches and service buses. RICHARD SHARMAN

The East Anglian Daily Times has reported concern that dozens of school bus routes in Suffolk will be run by one of the council’s wholly-owned companies from September, after the collapse of existing arrangements, which could mean that they cost more than half a million pounds more to operate.

Current provider Suffolk Norse served notice of its joint arrangement with Suffolk County Council to provide up to 40 school routes as well as services which transport pupils to swimming lessons across the county, in September, the newspaper reports.

The council’s cabinet agreed a new contract with Vertas, a company wholly owned by the council, for those routes from the start of the new school year in September, which the authority said includes the transfer of staff, buses and depots to Vertas.

Andrew Reid, Conservative Cabinet Member for Transport, told the newspaper that Suffolk Norse had faced ‘economic challenges’ which resulted in a revised proposal being tabled, and which he claimed would have resulted in significant increased costs for the council. The council rejected that proposal, which prompted Suffolk Norse to serve notice on its contract.

Andrew said that the new contract could result in a price increase of between £33,000 and £657,000 more than it did in the 2019/20 school year, depending on the results of inspections of the vehicles.

He said that: “Suffolk County Council has a statutory obligation to provide home-to-school transport for entitled children. Faced with the dilemma of increased costs and the real potential of not having sufficient provision in September 2021, the county council have no choice but to look at alternatives.”

Gordon Jones, Conservative Cabinet Member for Finance, added that the increased costs will be funded from the risk reserve, with the Vertas proposal representing the least financial and operational risk to the council, which said that the contract was not put out to tender for other companies to bid for because it was felt some of the routes could be left without a provider. It said that an exemption in procurement laws meant Vertas could be contracted because it is a company within the authority’s control.

However, an open letter co-signed by Ipswich Buses, Stephensons of Essex and eight other local operators called on the council to reconsider: “The proposal and recommendations make little sense, either to the council taxpayers in Suffolk, or to operators who have seen their businesses hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and who have ample spare capacity to take this work on.”

The letter went on to say: “We believe that by offering these contracts to commercial operators the County Council would make substantial savings which could then be reinvested in supporting the County Council’s wider Public Transport plan,” and that the council’s plan was not in the best interests of council taxpayers.

Labour group Leader Sarah Adams backed the call for a full bidding process: “I really do think this should properly go out to tender and if we are doing the best for the Suffolk taxpayer we should get the best value.”