Approach to coach leisure support must change

Governments’ messages surrounding support for the coach and bus industry have been mixed since the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic broke. Some, such as the COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant in England, have been positive. Others have not.

The latest announcement, in which Westminster has refused to back Local Government Association (LGA) advice that coach operators in England should be considered as part of the leisure sector, falls into the latter category. It is particularly puzzling given that the Scottish Government has long since confirmed that it regards coaching as part of the leisure sector.

This failure on the part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to agree with LGA’s stance is difficult to understand. While home-to-school work is the bedrock for many coach operators, there can be no reasonable argument that the sector is not a central part of the UK’s leisure industry.

The government needs only ask hoteliers and attraction owners for evidence of that. Alternatively, it could view the volumes of coaches in many city centres during the peak summer season. They are not carrying fresh air; instead, they are carrying visitors with disposable income. They are carrying tourists.

Whether MHCLG’s decision is overturned remains to be seen. The Confederation of Passenger Transport is lobbying to secure that outcome. It has engaged its members to help with that.

But the true test of the coach industry’s financial resilience may be yet to come. Operations are likely to return at a trickle, with home-to-school work first and incoming tourism last.

What will come back quickly is the cost base that goes with running coaches and buses. Finance holidays will expire. Wages will become due once the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends. That is when the real challenge may present itself. That is why operators throughout the UK must be considered to be part of the leisure sector.