Croydon Council may not be able to transport all of the borough’s special educational needs and disabled children to their schools all this week, after one of its contractors went bust, the latest consequence of the Town Hall’s controversial, and flawed, transport procurement in which the “entrepreneurial” interim chief executive, Nathan Elvery, was deeply involved.
More than 250 disabled and SEN children are affected after Ruskin Private Hire, a Camberwell-based contractor, went into administration a fortnight ago while still fighting a court battle with Croydon Council over a disputed £2.5million arising from the borough’s re-tendering of school transport services four years ago.
But according to one of the council’s most senior staff, and despite having had 10 days’ notice over a half-term period, a contingency plan for school transport will only be fully operational by the middle of this week, and that may not be able to cope with the requirements of more than 60 of the children.
Before the Tory-run council’s budget meeting last night, Tim Pollard, the £45,000-a-year part-time cabinet member responsible for schools, had to break away from sending party political messages on Twitter to deliver an emergency statement regarding the school transport situation with Ruskin Private Hire.
Efforts to save the Ruskin business, or to sell it as a going concern, collapsed during half-term week.
Because of teacher training days yesterday, the full service for the borough’s SEN pupils was not required although according to Pollard, at least one parent did refuse to allow their child to travel on the contingency transport provided by the council.
The service provided by Ruskin catered for 255 pupils across 59 routes, including serving Red Gates School in South Croydon and Link Secondary, just the other side of Fiveways on Croydon Road.
The council’s transport options may be at full stretch for a while yet, too, since pupils at the former Roke Primary in Kenley are having to be bussed to alternative classrooms around the borough since their school was flooded and closed two weeks ago.
In an internal briefing document sent out last Friday, the council admitted that it would only have replacement transport in place for 75 per cent of the affected routes and then only “by the middle” of this week.
It appears to be another shambolic mess, at least partially of the council’s own making, which inconveniences parents of some of the borough’s most vulnerable children.
Paul Greenhalgh, the council’s executive director for children, families and learning, told staff and councillors:
“Ruskin Private Hire is one of the contractors we use for school transport for pupils with significant levels of Special Educational Need. We use a number of contractors so this contract affects only a proportion of transported children.
“We were advised at the beginning of this week that Ruskin Private Hire had been placed in administration. Since then we have been in frequent contact with the administrators (FRP Advisory) and they had initially indicated that they were going to continue trading while seeking to sell Ruskin as a going concern. Officers have worked hard to support the administrator in this endeavour due to the service and commercial benefits of this plan, whilst in parallel continuing to mobilise our contingency plan.
“We were notified late yesterday evening that unfortunately no agreement had been reached with a prospective buyer and the business would close.
“The Council’s business continuity plan has been enacted and contingency arrangements are being put in place.
“This will affect 255 children on 59 routes. For 75 per cent of the routes we have services and crews lined up which should be operational by the middle of next week. The remaining 25 per cent (63 children) fall into two groups, taxi users and a small number of children with highly complex needs. For both these groups the lead in time maybe longer but we would hope to be operational by the end of the week…
“We are contacting all parents and updating them on the situation and have made arrangements for parents to be reimbursed should they need to transport their children to school.
“CFL [Children, Families and Learning department] colleagues have contacted all affected schools and have asked for their support whilst new arrangements bed down.
“We are actively signposting drivers and passenger assistants to the new providers in order, where possible, to provide continuity to the children although some children will however have new drivers and passenger assistants. We will keep in contact with parents and schools and aim to minimise any disruption…”
“Actively signposting”? Really? Anyway, we digress…
The background to the financial collapse of Ruskin Private Hire goes back more than four years, and Rod Lynch, the owner of the transport company, has said that the full role of Croydon Council in the affair is yet to be told.
“There is a bigger picture to this situation,” Lynch said. “The company has been brought down by clandestine actions of third parties.”
Nearly five years ago, Private Eye magazine exposed some questionable dealings at Croydon Town Hall over the awarding of a multi-million pound contract for transport services to another contractor, Olympic South, when key council personnel appeared all too closely connected to the process.
In September 2009, Olympic South was little more than a Merton-based mini-cab firm. But it was awarded a £6.5million contract by our council to ferry disabled children between home and school in Croydon.
As Private Eye reported, there were cheaper tenders for the work from better-qualified firms based in Croydon.
The decision to award the lucrative contract to Olympic South appeared to be based on advice from Michael Lawrence, a former transport officer at Sutton Council who had gone on to work as a consultant to Nathan Elvery, then Croydon’s deputy chief executive responsible for procurement.
Soon after Olympic South won its Croydon tender, Lawrence managed to get a job with… Olympic South. Cushty. According to the Eye, Lawrence was on a £100,000 salary plus company Merc. Double cushty.
In 2012, Croydon councillors finally acted and ordered an inquiry into the Olympic South deals. It was an internal council investigation, and managed to find no evidence of fraud.
But a second investigation, this time conducted by the District Auditor, found “significant weaknesses” in the tendering process.
This forced the council to go to the trouble and expense to re-tender all 13 of their transport contracts. As a consequence, Olympic South was left with a minor contract to cover some cab routes. It was in this re-tendering that some of the financial problems for other contractors, such as Ruskin, may have been created.
But the scandal and mismanagement did not end there. It later emerged that Olympic South and another contractor that passed the tendering process (not Ruskin) did not even have proper licenses to operate some of their vehicles, meaning that Croydon children were being transported to their schools in uninsured taxis and mini-buses.
The District Auditor also found that interim payments had been made to contractors and contract terms were being altered by council officials who did not have the authority to do so. In the aftermath of the audit investigation at Croydon, Peter Storey, a procurement manager, left his council job after a period of suspension.
And now, another south London business has been forced into administration, and its 266 employees laid off for no fault of theirs, all possibly as a consequence of some of Croydon Council’s most senior officers’ mishandling of multi-million pound contracts and public money.
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Coming to Croydon
- Fairtrade Film night, Antenna Cafe, Haynes Lane, Feb 27
- Fairtrade event, Upper Norwood Library, Mar 1
- St David’s Day quiz night, Ruskin House, Mar 1
- Coulsdon and Purley Debating Society, Mar 3
- Patchwork and quilting workshop, Upper Norwood Library, Mar 3
- Fairtrade stall at Food Market, Haynes Lane, Mar 8
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, Mar 15
- Norwood Society talk, Upper Norwood Library, Mar 20
- South Norwood Lakes Playground group workshop, Mar 25
- David Lean Cinema: Basically Johnny Moped, Mar 27-28
- Croydon Half-marathon, Mar 30
- David Lean Cinema: 12 Years a Slave, Apr 3
- David Lean Cinema: The Great Beauty, Apr 10
- David Lean Cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis, Apr 17
- David Lean Cinema: Short Term, Apr 24
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
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