COMMUNITY leaders have voted to scrap free travel for children when they reach eight years of age.

As part of an update to Hampshire County Council’s home to school transport scheme, councillors say this change of policy will save £1.54 million a year, a minor but significant amount as the authority tries to close an anticipated £140 million budget shortfall by April 2019.

But the decision has sparked fierce criticism from opposition councillors, with one labelling the decision as “shameful”.

The director of children’s services Steve Crocker even noted that the policy, the Education Act 1996, was outdated and needed an “overhaul”, an opinion backed by deputy leader Councillor Keith Mans.

But councillors voted 10-8 in favour, despite several blocked attempts from opposition Liberal Democrat members – led by Cllr Jackie Porter – to try and mitigate the impact of the decision.

Currently, children qualify for free transport if they attend the nearest catchment school or one that is nearer to their home, and the distance is more than two miles away for Year R to 3 pupils or more than three miles for Year 4 to 11.

But the new plans, which will come into effect in September, would see nursery children with special needs or disabilities refused the service, and teenagers older than 16 with the same needs forced to pay.

From September 2019, it was agreed that free transport for reception-age children would also be scrapped until they are of compulsory school age (the term after their fifth birthday), and, from their child’s eighth birthday, parents would be expected to take their kid to school if they live within three miles (previously two miles).

Transport will still continue for those who were eligible, but costs of up to £1,330 a year could arise for those who aren’t.

“We cannot afford to take our children to school. That is a sad state of affairs,” said Lib Dem councillor Gavin James.

“These are taxpayers and we should give them a gold plated service. They deserve it. They pay for it.

“We are talking about turning people’s lives upside down”

He added: “Educating our children is a massive investment, as is encouraging them to take public transport.

“This decision is only going to build problems for the future.”

Cllr Porter, who attempted to block the decision, also said nursery children, especially those with disabilities, should still be provided with transport. A lack of transport, she added, would hinder children as parents may not be able to get them there themselves.

She said: “There is a particular need to make sure children have a really good start to school.

“Children with special needs have particular needs and these are very important.

“We believe this particular group is an area where no costs should be cut.”

Another issues raised was that of pollution and safety in front of school gates. Cllr James noted that less buses would result in more cars.

“Public transport means less cars on the road and will mean more children will talk to school,” he said.

“But, when the roads are so packed, parents are scared to let their children walk to school, meaning they drive. This results in even more cars.”

Nevertheless, Conservative councillor Russell Oppenheimer argued the cost cutting was needed.

“If we had the money I think we would love to provide home to school transport for pupils.

“But residents have told us that they want resources to be diverted to where there is the greatest need, which this is not.

“I think we should commend officers for the policy as it has been done in a fair way.”