School bus services could be slashed as West Dunbartonshire Council faces “its worst ever financial crisis,” it has been warned.
Last week parents and carers across the area were sent a letter outlining potential money-saving changes, which would see free buses only provided for primary pupils who live more than two miles from their school and to secondary pupils who live more than three miles away.
Parts of Bonhill are over three miles from Our Lady and St Patrick’s High - which works out at around a 45 minute walk - and more than two miles from Vale of Leven Academy. Balloch to the Vale Academy is around 2.3 miles.
Currently free transport is available for primary pupils living more than a mile from school, and secondary pupils who are more than two miles from their catchment school.
West Dunbartonshire Council is battling to balance the books, with the local authority facing a budget gap of more than £18m - with councillors set to decide later this month how to close that.
It will see members faced with difficult decisions around what services to cut, with a switch to monthly bin collections another idea mooted.
The letter sent to parents read: ‘Like all other local authorities across the country, West Dunbartonshire Council is facing a significant funding shortfall in the coming years, with the difference between the funding we receive and the cost of delivering our services currently anticipated to be in excess of £20 million for the next year alone.
‘Our situation has been compounded by a range of factors including increases in inflation, utilities, fuel, materials and employee costs.
‘This is our most significant financial challenge since our inception as a council and at a time where our residents are relying on our services more than ever, we must take action to balance the budget for the next financial year and beyond.
‘One of the proposed options to be considered is a change to mainstream school transport provision in West Dunbartonshire.
“Under this proposal, school transport would be provided to primary pupils who live more than two miles away from school and to secondary pupils who live more than three miles away from school, continuing to exceed statutory provision.’
Council leader, Labour’s Martin Rooney, explained that the local authority was facing its biggest financial challenge ever - as he hit out at the SNP for undervaluing local authorities.
Councillor Rooney said: “It’s no secret that West Dunbartonshire Council is facing its worst ever financial crisis with a budget gap of over £20 million to close before March 31 next year.
“We have been underfunded by the Scottish government and the previous SNP Council spent all the free reserves and left a massive budget gap. As a result Council officers have had to develop savings options to close next year’s budget gap. The first tranche of officers’ savings options will come to the December Council meeting for consideration by all elected members.”
The SNP’s education spokesperson, Councillor Gordon Scanlan, said that no decisions would be taken without a full consultation with residents.
He told the Lennox: “Whilst I understand the reality of the financial situation facing the current administration, this saving option up for discussion at the next full council meeting is certainly cause for concern.
“School should be as easily accessible as possible and any decision which would make that more difficult, particularly during the current cost of living crisis, should be avoided. I will ensure these plans are scrutinised in full and that the Labour administration is challenged on the potential impact to children and families before any decision is made at the next full council meeting.
“The Scottish Government’s young person free bus scheme may help in some areas, however schools are not always easily accessible by public transport and I have been contacted by many residents concerned about the unreliability of bus services in recent months.’’
Whilst Jim Bollan, of the Community Party, called on Labour, the SNP and his party to work together to set a budget that worked for the people of the area.
Councillor Bollan said: “I share the real concerns of parents of school children and all tenants and residents regarding the deep cuts and job losses being considered by the Labour council.
“Enough is enough. No councillor was elected to implement Tory cuts.
“We should refuse to set a balanced budget set by the Tories and instead set a needs based budget which reflects the real needs of the local families who elected us”
Options on how to close the budget black hole will be discussed at a full meeting of West Dunbartonshire Council on December 21.