Transporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to school is forecast to cost Lancashire County Council £8.4m more than it had budgeted for this year.

The predicted overspend for 2023/24 has increased by nearly £2.5m in just the two months since it was last estimated.

The authority has now invested in around 50 new minibuses to expand its own fleet in an attempt to drive down the cost of using privately-hired vehicles.

County Hall’s scrutiny management board heard the ballooning bill was the result of recent increases in the number of children with special needs entitled to home-to-school transport as part of their education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

Statutory guidance says the ideal maximum daily travelling time for a child – 45 minutes each way for primary pupils and 75 minutes for secondary school children – has also had an impact.

The new vehicles are due to be delivered next month and County Cllr Mike Goulthorp – lead member for finance and resources – said he expected them to ease pressure on the authority’s budget “quite considerably”.

“These are…eye-watering costs in many instances in terms of [private] hire transport.  We have already taken steps to reduce our need [for] what I would call taxis,” he said.

County Cllr Goulthorp added that ongoing efforts to create SEND units within mainstream schools across the county would also help bring down the transport bill.

He added: “It is complex [and] there are two issues – where the kids are actually going to be taught [and] looked after and…how we get them [there] in a safe and efficient manner. But the first priority is the children."

Oliver Starkey, county public and integrated transport head, said the new minibuses will be smaller than the existing in-house fleet, which will make driver recruitment easier – as no additional qualifications are required to take charge of them. Fewer passenger assistants would be needed to carry the same number of children.

The committee was told an underspend within the highways service – as a result of greater than expected income from utility companies and housing developers – was helping to offset some of the burgeoning SEND transport costs.

But County Cllr Rob Bailey expressed concerns the situation amounted to the highways budget “subsidising” special needs transport demand.

Finance director Neil Kissock stressed the budget for road resurfacing was part of the capital programme, whereas the underspend had occurred as part of the county council’s day-to-day – or revenue – spending.

“There’s no indication this position is predicated on reducing spend [on] potholes,” Mr. Kissock said.

But County Cllr Bailey said “additional [pothole] schemes” could have been funded from the revenue underspend.

County Cllr Goulthorp added that SEND transport had always “traditionally” come under the control of the authority’s highways management structure.