I thank you, Mr Speaker, and especially so this evening as we find ourselves the last ones standing after a lengthy evening of voting on the important European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
Northumberland voted to leave the EU, as I did, and as we progress the people’s call, I want to make sure that the children currently coming through the schools in my constituency, and those who will follow, are well prepared academically to take up all the opportunities that the United Kingdom, as a sovereign state once again, will afford them. The reality, however, is that at present north Northumberland’s children are being short-changed—years of being right at the bottom of the list in funding formula allocations, exacerbated by, until May of this year, a Labour council that skewed the education grant in favour of the urban-based children in the south-east of the county, to the relative detriment of children in the rural areas of north Northumberland and the market towns of Alnwick, Amble and Berwick.
To help change those children’s destiny, we need to change how we frame the education package across the county. We need to radically rethink how we sustain an effective transport network to get every child to school each day. The House should bear in mind that the catchment area for Glendale valley schools, for instance, is some 250 square miles, so continuing to pay bus companies large sums of money to provide limited services, and charging post-16 students’ families more than £600 per year per pupil for transport passes, is simply unsustainable. It often feels to me that we have cartels operating to ensure that bus companies providing services bid up the costs as a way to underwrite other service provision. That cannot be the way to maximise the effective use of education budgets. Surely this is money that could be spent on frontline teaching, education resources and tools to give our children the very best chance in life, which is what a country such as the United Kingdom should be affording them wherever they live.
The new Conservative leadership at Northumberland County Council is determined to radically change how we provide transport for our kids, but we need the Department’s assistance. The present arrangements with bus companies do not provide value for money to the taxpayer. My councillors want to lead the way in providing innovative solutions on rural transport, including for school pupils, that can provide better and bolder solutions to the problems we face. In Alnwick we have an excellent social enterprise, NEED—North East Equality & Diversity —which provides accessible transport solutions to individuals and organisations. My councillors want to find ways to use this social enterprise model to create appropriate bus size provision across my most rural communities.
To that end, I would like to encourage a new system that will empower schools themselves to no longer have to rely on the big bus companies with a very limited offer, but to create a community transport solution, perhaps something like the yellow bus model we see in the United States. I call on the Minister, therefore, to pump-prime a Northumberland project that puts education and transport needs at its heart. I ask him to sit down with me, councillors and the relevant Transport Minister to help design a community transport hub that can flex to the needs of the most rurally based children and others in communities currently cut off from so much by the lack of public transport.