March Budget: Freedom over process or governed?

Operators are preparing for whatever 2020 has to bring, but are the odds against them?

It’s 2020 and we finally have a government – not a constitutional crisis – for the first time in many months.

All focus now then is on the March Budget. Ministers are hurriedly making their bids for what is likely to be a significant government spending bonanza to boost industry, cushion the shock of leaving the EU, reward those voters who lent their vote to Boris Johnson, and try to advance several British industries to supercharge the economy and our reputation.

The work is almost done. Overlaid on this are decisions about HS2, the publication of the Williams Review on the rail industry and varying levels of bus franchising ideas.

Not unconnected is the decarbonisation agenda, and with several major urban areas voting in their mayors this May (not just London) we can expect some target dates for eliminating the diesel bus in our cities in the forthcoming manifestos.

The London date looks like 2030 (for buses that is seven years earlier than would naturally have occurred).

No wonder bus operators and their supply chains are poised for whatever is next. What is certain is that there will be some significant developments during 2020 which will affect the industry – an industry which, we must never forget, remains on a gentle downward drift in patronage, notwithstanding some star performers in a few locations.

The inevitable outcome, as we have seen at the end of January, is the demise of more operators as the economics become impossible.

My shorthand for this decline continues to be walking, cycling, working from home, Uber and Amazon.

The first three are being hugely encouraged for our health, wellbeing and for air quality improvements. The latter two are simply the brand names now becoming generic terms for the app-based private hire industry and online shopping and personal delivery businesses.

High street retail is in a terrible state, with many major department stores closing rapidly and their support cast in main street UK following them. With no high street, there is no destination for off-peak capacity.

So, at this crossroads, with the potential for more government money and a different regulatory regime, what do we do? Do we stick out for our freedoms, running our buses where we want and when we want at a price we can choose?

Or do we let mayors, councils, agencies and the like take control of the process and deliver what will inevitably be a thoroughly subsidised service as those groups use the bus, as in London, to provide a service well in excess of the financial optimum, in order to get children to school, the unemployed to look for employment, the workers to work and to support cultural activities like cinema, theatre and the night economy of bars and restaurants?

It feels like the industry is increasingly split on this – the larger groups continue to lobby for continued freedom; some smaller groups and operators are positioning to grab the franchising opportunities outside London if and when they occur.

An increasingly mixed message to government, for sure.