A key moment in the crisis that has enveloped the coach industry happened on 15 July. A delegation from the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), including five operators, met ministers to discuss the potential for sector-specific support. But there was no “pot of gold” that had been hoped for.
That response caused angst within the industry. But even before more recent news broke, which has led to a rekindling of hopes for government backing, one operator that was present at the meeting believed that the gathering did not mark an end to the industry’s quest for help.
Candice Mason is General Manager of Masons Minibus and Coach Hire, based in Tring. Masons has put a lot of effort into preparing itself for a restart that has thankfully now begun, albeit slowly. But the impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic on its business is clear.
While CPT has not yet been able to reveal full details of what a second proposal to Transport Minister Baroness Vere contains, Mrs Mason is clear about what she believes the industry needs if a solid future is to be assured. A bail out.
Bail out remains the key to coach industry support
“Before seeing Baroness Vere and other ministers, we held a ‘pre meeting’ to decide on a strategy. CPT understands the challenge of obtaining sector-specific funding. Chief Executive Graham Vidler had asked us to come up with suggestions as to what else we might benefit from as an industry,” Mrs Mason says.
“As operators, we decided to go back to CPT and make it clear that a bail out is what we need. We put proposals across, including one linked to what businesses have already spent to comply with emission control zones and with a schedule based on that.”
What quickly become clear in the meeting was that Baroness Vere knows more about coaches than she has been given credit for, including by routeone.
“It was obvious that CPT has maintained a dialogue with her. She opened the meeting and accepted immediately that she understands our plight.
“It was clear that discussions have been taking place. She knows how much we are struggling.”
Nevertheless, the Baroness shut down calls for a bailout before they could be made. And while the official line is that additional dedicated home-to-school transport capacity in England will represent a windfall for the industry, Mrs Mason believes that buses will provide a significant part of that.
Additionally, for coach operators that cannot provide vehicles for that purpose – because either they are not located in England or their fleet is unsuitable – further action is needed.
Surprising answer on aeroplane-coach social distancing disconnect
Addressed at the summit was concern that a social distancing disconnect exists between aeroplanes and coaches. Airlines are happy to operate at 100% capacity. Coach operators are limiting their vehicles to around 50%.
“Baroness Vere’s response was striking. She was very clear: No sector has been given specific guidance. How an individual business carries out and manages a risk assessment is for it to decide,” says Mrs Mason.
“That was not what I was expecting to hear. We were asking for sector-specific guidance. We are definitely not going to get that.”
Masons’ policy based on a risk assessment will see it operate at 50% capacity on day trips and holidays.
Even then, the number of venues it can visit is reduced. That issue that was raised with a Tourism Minister who was present at the meeting.
“I have been told by two major attractions in London that they will not accept groups of more than six people. “The Tourism minister asked for an example. I was able to give him a powerful answer: Kew Gardens. He agreed to look into that.”
Using home-to-school as a ‘hook’ for wider industry support
It was a source of huge disappointment that no government support was offered at the meeting. CPT is now working to make further headway, with concerns around home-to-school transport as a ‘hook’ to hang its coat on from a wider perspective. President Steve Whiteway has already reported that ministers may be waking up to that issue.
With that in mind, Mrs Mason still holds out hope that a package of some form will be forthcoming. While the Honk for Hope movement has gained attention more recently, including that of politicians in Westminster on Monday 20 July, CPT holds the key to government engagement, she says.
What is important during this crisis is for the coach industry not to consider itself the same as the bus sector when calling for support. “We are not viewed in the same way by the government. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can get on with working with CPT and the more likely we are to get something.”
Other ideas for coach industry support proposed
One of the alternative support mechanisms raised by the five operators before the meeting was a ‘tiered’ payment structure based on emission levels and how much investment the operator had made in its fleet.
Another was based on Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme. It would see vouchers given to schools and/or certain demographics to incentivise them to book coach travel.
A subsequent proposal floated by CPT that, if adopted, will extend finance holidays and restructure payment agreements “without significant extra cost” to the government is welcome, says Mrs Mason.
The Tring operator has taken out finance payment holidays, or reduced payments to 50%, on several of its coaches. In doing so, it has accrued interest totalling around £20,000.
That is a big hit for a small company. When combined with other headwinds that the pandemic has brought, those additional outgoings will contribute to temporarily putting Masons’ development as a business back by five years.
CPT’s revised paper to the government contains a commitment that if it is accepted, the industry will preserve jobs. A ‘resilience fund’ approach is something else that Mrs Mason advocates.
“A grant that would allow an operator to demonstrate that eventually it will come out stronger; that its business is going to retain its employees; and that it would need more staff in the future would dovetail with the current government approach,” she says.
Mrs Mason points to Mr Sunak’s Summer Statement as evidence of that. In January 2021, eligible businesses will receive £1,000 for each worker that has been reinstated from furlough and retained to that point. That is proof of a government focus on job retention, she says. If the coach industry can leverage that, it will work in its favour in negotiating a way out of the crisis.
Cautious optimism rekindled, but support of some form is needed
Masons recently restarted its day trip programme in a restrained but positive way. It is seeing good interest in tours that will depart later this year. Most notably, 75 people have already either booked or registered their interest in a turkey and tinsel holiday in November.
But the bottom line is simple, concludes Mrs Mason. The coach industry still requires support. “I don’t care how it comes. A voucher scheme, a grant scheme. The sector needs a bail out. That’s it.”
Despite the previous bad news that no industry-specific money was available, it appears that the government’s view on what it can do for coaches could be starting to change.
MP Greg Smith, in whose constituency Masons is located and who has fought its corner throughout the pandemic, hinted on the day of the Honk for Hope gathering in London that he was more confident than before that a package may be forthcoming.
Supporting that suggestion, CPT has been asked to supply further data about coaches to the government. That raises the possibility that ministers may be getting antsy about the problems that a widespread industry collapse would cause.
Has the message finally begun to get through?
While the meeting with Baroness Vere and other ministers may have been disappointing, there is finally a small glimmer of hope that a support package of some kind may arrive.
Whether it will be soon enough for all operators, if indeed it is delivered, is unlikely. But there is now a light in the tunnel, albeit one that is distant and unclear.
“Based on what I have seen and heard, I am reasonably confident that something will come for us,” says Mrs Mason.
“But I have to think that. Our MP told us that on 20 July, coaches were being talked about by him and his peers on WhatsApp, and not in a negative way. Politicians have recognised that there is a problem. Honk for Hope had an impact. I also believe that CPT has gone in at the right time. A combination of the two will, I hope, help us.”