Buses main subject at Transport Questions

Can buses operations elsewhere in the country really be the same as the London bus model?

Buses were a central topic for discussion at Transport Oral Questions last week in the House of Commons.

Nothing surprising was raised, with MPs simply asking for better services and the restoration of services cut in years gone by.

Needless to say, ministers took the opportunity to highlight the recent funding that the government is making available to do just this, and to fund the purchase of 4,000 new zero-emission vehicles.

But I do want to highlight one point that Grant Shapps made. He says he wants to see “the London standard for bus services everywhere in the country.”

And when a Labour MP complained about the cost of bus travel in her constituency compared to the cost of bus travel in London, Grant Shapps agreed with her and said that the government will do something about it (or words to that effect).

London model

When she appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on 4 March, the Department for Transport’s Permanent Secretary, Bernadette Kelly, said she did “not think that ministers and the government would be opposed to looking at ideas [to improve services] around regulation.

“Indeed, I think that the government’s manifesto commitment talked about services akin to London services.”

Every time the issue of bus services comes up, ministers today seem only too willing to talk about the benefits of the London model, which they say they would like to see applied around the whole country.

At no point since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister have I heard ministers talk about the benefits and value of deregulation and, perhaps more troubling, I don’t recall ministers even talking up the importance of partnership working between local authorities and operators.

The whole focus seems to be on the benefits of the London model.

I find this troubling, and so should the operators, because it fails to acknowledge that regulation in London comes at a significant cost to the taxpayer and hasn’t actually stopped a decline in patronage in recent times.

The general debate seems to me to have become far too simplistic.

Private operators

Indeed, with a major reform of rail franchising expected to be announced sometime soon, with most franchises expected to be progressively moved onto management contracts, if I was Stagecoach, Arriva, First Group and so on, I would be wondering what the merits are of operating public transport services in the UK.

It increasingly seems that private sector operators are going to find their role in the provision of bus and rail services reduced to no more than utility operators with little scope, and possibly little incentive, to show that entrepreneurial, private sector flair and innovation that was meant to be the whole raison d’être of privatisation and deregulation.

Many will argue that privatisation and deregulation has failed.

That’s an easy, and partly understandable, line to take but, again, I think it’s too simplistic a position.

There have been many benefits of privatisation/deregulation and I’m surprised the operators don’t seem to be making them.