I’ve got a lot of time for Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a man with his own ideas for society, although I don’t agree with much of what he says. People may be disillusioned with capitalism, but I’m not convinced they’re reaching out for his brand of socialism either. It’s a much wider political debate.
What bothers me though, is the appearance in the media of Jeremy’s pledge for more bus franchising and council bus companies. I’m afraid it smacks of populism – a bizarre Farage-like simplistic view that “if only we did this, everything would be wonderful again”.
He’s made similar noises – inevitably – about the railways. But, like life itself, if only it were so simple.
As we edge closer to the 30th anniversary of bus deregulation, lest we forget the state of the bus industry back then. Comparisons with life 30 years ago are obviously difficult, but although the set up of the bus world then may have had plus-points, the overall scene was one of managed decline. OK, you may say that’s still been the case since, but the deregulated world – whilst not being perfect – has matured over the three decades it’s been set free. There’s been innovation, improvements and harsh realities to confront. It’s forced everyone – users and providers – to think long and hard about what bus services are. The more recent years of austerity have only sharpened minds in that respect.
But I cringe at this modern-day default setting that suggests that we have a rubbish transport system whilst fat-cats sit around the boardroom table lapping up bowls of cream. If only the system was run with public money by civil servants, they cry. Everyone could have the bus service they really want and need. No one seems to consider the practicalities of this. The demand. The budget. The value for money.
I understand the frustration. I’m lucky enough to live in an urban area. My local bus is service is good. It’s comprehensive, it’s good value for money and it works. It isn’t always like that. Rural areas have had issues for years. The scene now is often as bad as it’s ever been. There has been innovation in some areas, with demand-responsive provision, etc. And it’s not just these outposts. Even Shire areas are feeling the pinch. I’ve argued before that, if anywhere, franchised bus services ought to be tried out in these areas, rather than the seemingly political posturing going on in big City areas. I can’t for the life of me see why Manchester is hell-bent on taking control of it’s buses – the private sector does a pretty decent job, as far as I can see.
So, as ever, Jeremy’s intervention into public transport continues a well-beaten path of politicians sounding off on a populist theme in order to attain cheap votes. His vision of council bus operators may well be a sincere one. I like nothing better to peruse my bookshelves and leaf through images of wonderful old liveries and buses with open rear platforms with conductors cranking their little handles. It’s how we often used to do bus services. But it’s a bygone world we can’t hope to recover. These were the days before mass car ownership.
What about the likes of Reading, or “Rosso”, I hear you cry? Look at Nottingham City Transport with all of their awards. These are council-owned operations. A compelling argument for more of the same? There’s no doubt these are top-class operations. But they are in many ways unique operations. Relics from the past that have done good. They have carved out niches and don’t always have head-on competition. And, most importantly, they have good support from their paymasters. Could we guarantee this scenario everywhere? Do we have Authorities lining up to start running buses? Do we have a commitment to deep investment, not just now, but in 10, 20, 30, 50 years time?
Jeremy might put the argument – and it’s an interesting one – but I don’t feel the clamour from Joe Public for it – especially in the bus world. I’m not sure we’ve ever had it. The great names like Midland Red, etc in their heyday were privately-owned, and there wasn’t much shouting back then, as far as I can make out. Instead, bravo the incredible innovation Midland Red brought to bus operation back then – would that have been stifled under council ownership? You might say that there were examples of such innovation under council ownership – the brilliant Ronald Edgley Cox at Walsall Corporation being one such example – but they were fairly few. No, the public at large has never given too much thought about who owns the buses – they just want them to turn up on time. And that’s a different argument altogether.
We’ll see how the new set up following the Buses Bill pans out. Manchester may get uniform control, but will it make bus travel any better? If Dudley Council took control of my buses tomorrow, would it improve matters? Would I feel any better knowing that my £4 Daysaver was going back into the public purse rather than to National Express shareholders? Would I actually care? Would the Council be planning to invest in the fleet? Or maybe it might be eyeing up any cash there was for other important needs, like education or social services. And what about those services that people say they want? I well recall a number of years ago lobbying bus operators to provide a service from the Gornal Wood area of the Black Country direct to Russells Hall Hospital. It was “what people wanted”, according to endless letters in the paper, staff at the hospital, visitors and Councillors. We finally got one. It lasted a few years, National Express West Midlands withdrew it, a smaller operator took it on commercially, and it quietly disappeared for good a couple of weekends ago. This is the gritty reality of bus service provision – it actually needs certain numbers of people to actually use it. Gone are the days of “nice to have”, especially in urban commercial areas. In Jeremy’s Utopian vision, the public sector pays for and provides such services. But how long before the people – the general public themselves – start questioning the logic of directly funding very lightly-used bus services?
It is things like the funding of the Concessionary Bus Pass that need closer scrutiny. Let’s be clear here, lest anybody think I’m calling for a watering down or abolition of it. The “free” bus pass is a great thing. It helps people get out and about and function in society. It’s what a civilised society should do. But like most things involving politicians involvement, this good idea has turned sour behind the scenes, with funding for it’s use falling and falling over the years. You might, as an operator, even be faced with a bus full of bums on seats and still not make it pay, because the reimbursement you need to carry these passengers isn’t enough. The Government takes the glory, but passes down the nuts and bolts of payment down to the local authorities – who haven’t got 2 halfpennys to rub together as it is. And woe betide anyone politically or otherwise who suggests we tackle this issue by means-testing use of the pass. What should happen is that reimbursement for pass use should be set at a much more realistic level, rather than inevitably forcing commercial bus operators to up their prices to those who have to put money in the fare box.
What the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and others who argue their cases should be looking at are issues like these, and of why buses struggle to fight their way through traffic congestion and operate reliable services. Populist proposals may be just that – popular – but they don’t make things better.
(pic of Jeremy Corbyn: Reuters / BBC)