Municipalisation? The Way Forward? Or Back to Never-Never Land?

At the risk of OnThisBus appearing to sound “anti-Labour”, can I clear something up? Their policies interest me. Buses must be more than the sum of the bottom line on the accountant’s spreadsheet, although inevitably that’s the way things usually end up on a day-to-day basis. Corbyn’s Party has recently announced “free travel” for under-25s if it gains power, and that, of course, has set the chattering classes on the Clapham Omnibus off. The previous blog here looks at all sorts of hurdles that must be overcome to achieve that.

But now we have Labour’s recently-appointed Shadow Transport Minister for England Matt Rodda reconfirming the party’s direction when it comes to local buses. i.e. potentially back to the never-never land of municipalisation.

Now I’m the first to wallow in a huge pit of nostalgia at bygone days of council-owned operation, with half-cab buses, clippies cranking tickets from impossible-to-understand fare tables and gorgeous liveries that proved that there was actually life before Ray Stenning. I guess we might call them halcyon days, when buses were King, not everyone had a car and cinema – not Netflix – was where the masses watched movies. They traveled on the bus to the flicks to watch King Kong scale the Empire State Building – today they flop on the sofa to watch the remake on their tablet.

Convincing people that buses can be part of the future as well as the past is a hard slog. “What’s the point?”, many will say, when the bus is stuck in the same traffic as your car. Getting people to do the maths as to how much running a car costs them every year is always countered by that unspecified calculation of convenience and “my space”. Buses stuck in traffic jams and on fixed routes aren’t sexy.

Rodda says that “it is clear deregulation has failed passengers and that bus market monopolies are the norm”. Ironically, he made these comments at the launch of Transport Focus’s annual bus passenger satisfaction survey, where those “failed” passengers from the likes of TrentBarton in Derby & Nottingham, Yellow Buses in Bournemouth & Poole and Go North East in Tyne & Wear to pick but three examples must be wondering what on earth he is talking about. All of these topped 90-plus percent for overall satisfaction with their bus journey. As for those masters of bus market monopoly Stagecoach – well several of their local operations also made it into the 90s too.

What is clear to me – as one of these “passengers” – is that deregulation hasn’t necessarily “failed” me at all. It is other phenomenon such as failure to act widely on effective bus priority and operators struggling to make ends meet with the rise of internet shopping, falling footfall in the High Street and ever-lower reimbursement for carrying concessionary pass holders – something Rodda appears happy to potentially add to, when he grants under-25s that same “perk”.  Indeed those commercial fat cats sitting around the boardroom table licking the cream have actually made my journey in the West Midlands cheaper with a slice of good old commercial risk: local area zones have seen a rise in the uptake of these cheap options – would a franchised operation come up with something like that?

Nevertheless, Rodda looks an affable fellow. A quick trawl on the internet brings up the happy smiling MP with Martijn Gilbert, CEO of Reading Buses. He is sitting Member of Parliament for Reading East, which may or may not have swayed his ideas, given that Reading Buses – one of the few “municipal” operations left – also happens to be one of the best operations you’ll find in the UK.

Reading and similar municipal Nottingham regularly scoop the gongs at award dos, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all municipal operations are the blueprint for guaranteed success. Lessons to be learnt from how the very best operators do things? Certainly. Municipal operators are all the holy grail? Er…not entirely. In recent times, we’ve seen Swindon and “Rosso” disappear into private ownership. Now these may not necessarily have been poor operations in the public sector, and we could spend hours discussing reasons why this happened, but maybe we ought to be looking a little more at how the best operators – municipal or private – do things, and learn the best lessons, rather than doggedly creating a political saga where one may not necessarily be needed.

Labour’s plans for buses create more questions than solve them. They want to end the ban on Councils setting up new municipal operations. Whatever. I don’t see any clamour from Councils to set up new bus operations. And if there was, it’s that old familiar question – “where’s the money coming from?”. If Labour want to create an “integrated, successful and sustainable” transport system, are they saying that they’d rob buses from high-frequency, high-performing routes and drop them onto areas that currently have no or few buses? Do that, and you risk the success of the former, with no guarantee that the latter would work anyway. If you really want to give under-served areas a decent bus service, you need to invest in it. Throw resource at it. It may not work. That’s why a lot of commercial operators don’t do it. If the public sector thinks it’s worth a go (and who’s to say the commercial operators haven’t missed a trick?) they need to spend public money on it. But we’ve seen millions of pounds in recent years slashed from already supported bus services in what are considered marginal areas. Do you run buses where there is little demand because it is the right thing to do? Or do you stop wasting money, where that money is public or privately sourced? Getting access to transport other than the private car is vital, especially in rural or marginal areas. It’s a debate we’ve been having for years. But ultimately, it’s actually very simple – someone somewhere has to pay to provide it. Robbing the “Peter” of a successful route to pay the “Paul” of a little-used one is folly.

So all eyes then on Manchester’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham, as he prepares to set aside £11.5m just to prepare a business case to look at franchising. How much of that hefty sum might have been better spent setting up bus lanes, bus gates and effective cameras and fines for those who ignore them? Paint the buses orange if you really want and make it look like back to the 70s – but can the London-style idea really work in this Northern Powerhouse where the long-term funding and political will is as yet untested?

I’m not saying the “never-never land” of municipal operation is without all merit. Deregulation has it’s faults and can always be improved upon. Some private sector operators don’t do the commercial World any favours whatsoever. But a real, true partnership between private and public sectors, where both truly understand the other is the way to go.

Many years ago, I posed a question at a conference I was speaking at. I asked why we couldn’t have the success of the winner of the UK Bus Awards everywhere. I’m not that naive, but actually that’s as simple or as difficult as it gets. We need to see the bus as more than the sum of it’s commercial parts in society, and whilst Labour poses some interesting talking points, are the politicians of this left-leaning party driving down the wrong road to achieve it?

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