FREE transport for hundreds of students in post-16 education in Flintshire is set to be scrapped from next year after controversial charges were approved.

Almost 2,000 youngsters in the county currently receive free travel funded by Flintshire Council to their nearest suitable sixth form or college.

However, the local authority is one of few left in the country which still provides the discretionary service, which is costing it around £750,000 a year.

Senior politicians backed the introduction of a charge of up to £450 a year at a meeting held earlier today.

It means that from September 2020 only students who receive free school meals will be entitled to free travel.

Council leader Ian Roberts acknowledged the financial hardship the changes would place on some families, but said it was necessary given the budget shortfall it faces.

The head of the Labour-led administration said: “I believe that the decision we are faced with is extremely challenging.

“We, as a council, have prided ourselves on making post-16 education accessible to all and in having one of the lowest NEET – not in education, employment or training rates in Wales.

“However, we know that as a local authority and following ten years of austerity, we spend far more in net cost than other local authorities on transport, including transport to schools and colleges.

“We must recognise that the results of the consultation were a call for no change to the current policy as people are inevitably reluctant to pay more for local services if can be avoided.

“Unfortunately, there is no such thing as free school or college transport as free for the user means that the council taxpayer in general has to foot the bill.”

Cllr Roberts said free transport for those who receive free meals would be paid for by council funds in future.

He recommended the authority should explore the possibility of creating a hardship fund for families who have difficulty accessing education because of the charges.

He also backed a suggestion by the Liberal Democrats on the council to look at introducing an Oyster-card-style payment system to help people spread the cost.

The move to start charging came despite the majority of the 647 youngsters and parents who responded to a consultation on the changes opposing bringing in fees.

But Cllr Glyn Banks, cabinet member for finance, insisted the authority had not taken the decision lightly.

He said: “It’s with a heavy heart we have to support this because it’s not really much of an option.

“We are going to be protecting the most vulnerable pupils out there.

“To put this in perspective, it would put just under one per cent on the council tax rate if we don’t put this through.”

Cabinet members also supported renegotiating the amount it charges in costs to Coleg Cambria for transport.