The father of a primary school pupil who has been regularly taken to school in Cornwall by a taxi driver from Essex has called for Cornish drivers to do the job.
Cllr Adam Paynter was following up on a story we wrote last week about drivers from Shropshire and Essex being paid by a national company to undertake school transport runs in the Launceston area.
Cllr Paynter, a former leader of Cornwall Council, brought the subject up at a full meeting of the council this week asking members of the cabinet if they “thought it was a good idea for economic and climate change reasons to send a taxi down from Essex to Cornwall to take Cornish children to school”.
There was disbelief last week when the councillor told us that his son and two fellow pupils were picked up for the four-mile trip to North Petherwin Primary School by taxi drivers who had driven from Shropshire and Essex specifically to do the school runs in the morning and afternoon. They had been put up in hotels in the area – one over the border at a Travelodge in Devon – and returned to where they’d come from at the end of the school week.
A spokesperson for Cornwall Council stressed it was not paying for the relocation of the drivers or their accommodation. “A company called 24/7 Taxis who specialise in school transport and operate across multiple local authorities, have established themselves in Cornwall. The company is employing new drivers locally and their Cornwall operation is based here.
“The demand for school transport is growing and, until now, we have not had enough taxi companies to cater for this need – about 30 transport routes for around 60 to 70 students.
“As the company is in the process of establishing itself, it is temporarily supplementing the local workforce with drivers from other areas of their business. Cornwall Council is not paying for the temporary relocation of staff, the cost of their travel to and from Cornwall or their accommodation. It is very much a short-term measure while more drivers come through the required checks and processes before they can start work.”
After Cllr Paynter asked his question at Tuesday’s council meeting, Cllr Richard Pears, the new portfolio holder for transport, said: “This was a bit of a strange one coming into a new portfolio and finding out about this. This is one of those stories which sounds absolutely crazy on the surface of it, but then I dug into it and got a much more boring and mundane answer. The council put out a contract for taxis to take children to school and one of the companies which was picking up this contract didn’t have enough workers in that particular area at that time.
“They were a national company so they drafted in a couple of additional workers to come and cover a shift temporarily. It was a temporary solution and as soon as they have new workers on site who can cover that they will simply swap over. They didn’t envisage it being a long-term thing.”
Cllr Pears added: “We were not aware of this as why would you be – we hired someone to do a job. Yes, it’s not particularly environmentally efficient but I think if most of us ran a company and we had some employees here and we had some work there we’d ship them down for a few weeks to cover the job. It’s something and nothing.”
However, Cllr Paynter was not happy with this response. “I’m afraid that school transport is a mess. We know the budget for school transport is a mess, way over budget. Perhaps we should work with our own taxi companies here in Cornwall. We have shown at other times where the market isn’t working that we can intervene as a council and make sure that we can get things to work.
“Why should we be filling the pockets of a company in Essex when we get to use our own taxi companies in Cornwall? If the market is failing then we’ve seen established companies like Corserv and Cormac … well, we could start Cortaxis.”
Cllr Pears replied: “This isn’t a company in Essex – it’s a company which works in multiple areas, including down here and they just happened to have some drivers in Essex.”
However, it is clearly listed on Linkedin and elsewhere that the 24/7 group – the UK’s largest contracted transport provider for schools, special schools and social care – is based at Little Easton, Essex.
Cornwall’s head of transport added: “We are really working with our taxi drivers down here – we just don’t have enough in that particular area. I really want to understand who we’re taking to school, in which area and why. It’s very interesting that the council is spending an awful lot of money shipping children to school and I want to understand why we’re doing that, where we’re doing that and how we can improve that system going forward.”
Later in the meeting Cllr Mike Mclening said he was shocked to see Cllr Paynter’s comments last week and as a result the licensing department had a meeting last Friday about the matter. He said inquiries will be made behind the scenes on the issue.