COUNCILLORS have expressed frustration at feeling their attempts to scrutinise Wrexham Council are being obstructed by the authority’s leadership.

Queensway Cllr Carrie Harper (Plaid), chair of the council’s lifelong learning scrutiny committee, says she feels attempts to get to grips with school transport issues in the county have been blocked by the ruling Independent / Conservative led executive board.

Since before Christmas, the committee has flagged up transport issues for sixth form pupils attending Ysgol Morgan Llwyd and the Maelor School in Penley.

One of the recommendations the committee made was to request the ruling Independent / Conservative Executive Board look at, and possibly reconsider, a decision taken in 2015 not to subsidise post-16 transport in light of the current cost-of-living crisis.

But in February the executive board opted to postpone revisiting this until Welsh Government gives an update on its Learner Travel Measure review – a policy which could make it a statutory requirement for councils to fund post-16 transport.

At this month’s executive board meeting, Cllr Harper called for the executive board to allow officers to look into the issue ahead of the Welsh Government publishing its update.

The Leader: Cllr Carrie HarperCllr Carrie Harper

But this was rebuffed by lead member for education, Brynyffynnon Cllr Phil Wynn (Ind) concerned that overspending in the department was contributing to the authority’s £23m budget hole.

He added that he wanted all officers focused on reigning the department’s spending in.

Cllr Wynn said: “If we don’t address that in a timely manner unfortunately that pressure becomes more difficult to deliver as time runs out, and that means unfortunately more of our staff face redundancy that we could avoid by acting sooner rather than later.”

He suggested recommendations that;

The executive board welcomes the report presented by Cllr Harper and thank the committee for the work undertaken.

The executive board notes Welsh Government commitment to undertake review into the Learner Travel policy and recommend officers wait until its publication before carrying out any more work.

He said this was to avoid any potential unnecessary work being carried out by officers.

The Leader: Cllr Phil WynnCllr Phil Wynn

Cllr Harper said she found the recommendations “incredibly frustrating and a poor message to send” to schools and felt scrutiny was being blocked from doing its job.

Leader of the opposition Labour group and member of the lifelong learning scrutiny committee Ruabon Cllr Dana Davies also expressed frustration.

She said: “This recommendation ties the hands of scrutiny.

“What you’re actually saying is that you’re refusing in your recommendations to provide scrutiny with the resources to do its job and hold the executive to its account.”

Leader of the council, Esclusham Cllr Mark Pritchard (Ind) denied the executive board was “stepping on any toes” or preventing people from doing work.

He added “the more scrutiny the better for this authority” but that officers’ time and effort should be on finding savings.

The council’s legal officer Linda Roberts told councillors it was for the executive board to decide what recommendations to accept, and that scrutiny has no entitlement over officer time, adding that the lead member had put forward recommendations with valid reasons for them.

Deputy leader, Johnstown and Pant Cllr David A Bithell (Ind) suggested an additional recommendation that the council asks Welsh Government for a timescale on review. Cllr Wynn accepted this.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Harper expressed frustration at its outcome.

“Wrexham Council's Executive Board asked me to bring a report looking at how we can address the challenges pupils are facing in relation to school transport”, she said.

"My scrutiny committee has done a lot of work on this. We wanted to further explore what the cost of transport to our sixth forms would be ahead of possible upcoming legislation changes.

“We also wanted council leaders to allow officers to look at alternative improvements related to current paid transport arrangements.

“A previous decision of theirs oddly prevented us doing that work, so we made new recommendations to the executive in a bid to remove the blocks to progress.

"Aside from the cost element, there is an additional problem in that students aren’t even guaranteed a seat on a bus to sixth form even if they pay for it. That is something that could potentially be addressed through re-looking at the current transport structure, which is what scrutiny wanted to explore further."

Cllr Harper added: "When making that decision, they also instructed officers not to do any further work on this issue at all.

“That's frustrating because it prevents officers looking at solutions that aren’t necessarily about additional funding, it's about a willingness to talk to our headteachers, looking to rejig transport arrangements to ensure pupils can at least be guaranteed a bus seat and can therefore commit to going to our sixth forms.

The Leader: Cllr Mark PritchardCllr Mark Pritchard (Image: Wrexham Council)

"On the one hand the executive tell us repeatedly to ‘do more scrutiny’ and then directly block us from doing precisely that.

“They tell schools we’re prioritising transition but then refuse to work with them on challenges in that area, even when that doesn’t involve additional funding. Why would the council not look to improve the situation if there's no additional cost?

"I'm not sure what message they think this sends to our local schools or to members who put time and effort into scrutiny but I'd suggest it's not a good one".

Speaking at the executive board meeting when the recommendations were voted for, leader Cllr Pritchard said: “Scrutiny have the opportunity to put a topic request in, to look at it and do what they want.

“On this occasion recommendations have come forward but it looks like they’re not going to get what they wanted and I appreciate that.

“But we are waiting for the Welsh Government to do this piece of work and when it comes back we’ll embrace the outcomes, that’s the way it should be.

“There’s nothing wrong with the executive board going against scrutiny’s recommendations.”

The executive board voted in favour of Cllr Wynn’s recommendations.