There is no Bill silence

Our man in Westminster argues that contrary to the views expressed by an anonymous senior bus industry executive, there has been plenty of noise about the Bus Services Bill, but lobbying is more than the metaphorical banging of dustbins lids outside parliament. And, in any case, good operators have nothing to fear

The article ‘Why the silence on the Buses Bill?’ (RouteONE, Opinion, 6 July) left me at a loss. For a “senior bus industry executive” to say the things they said was breath-taking and showed a total lack of understanding about not only how government works and why, but the considerable efforts made by the industry, through its trade association, to ensure that the Bus Services Bill was as sensible as possible, given the circumstances in which the Bill came about to start with – which had nothing to do with bus policy.

Let’s start with the comment that I have been “defeatist” in a recent article, which suggested that with a high profile comes greater scrutiny. Let me be very clear on this. High profile does equal greater scrutiny, which does increase the risk of greater government intervention. I know. I’ve been there. Does the bus industry really want greater scrutiny? I’m not being defeatist: Just realistic, and warning of the dangers of greater scrutiny.

Threats

The writer says the Bus Services Bill is “the single biggest threat and regulatory change” for 30 years. No it isn’t. What about the introduction of Quality Contracts in the Transport Act 2000?

Then there is a suggestion that the industry has “never been that great at communicating political and economic messages.”

For the avoidance of doubt I am not employed by either a bus operator or the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT). I’m a political commentator and I can tell you one thing. Over the past 30 years the CPT has been highly effective at representing the interests of the industry at the place where it really matters, at the level at which detailed bus policy is made, which is government officials.

Calm work

No grandstanding, no high profile campaigns, no desk thumping, no fanfares. Just quietly, calmly, putting across the benefits of the deregulated market. That approach has served the industry incredibly well for 30 years.

It is true that the industry now faces a new threat. But this threat has nothing to do with bus policy. As the writer correctly points out, the Bus Services Bill is a consequence of devolution, not of a change in bus policy. When I first warned one or two bus industry executives that re-regulation was a potential unintended consequence of devolution I was laughed at.

Now that it is a real and present danger, the complaint is that the industry did not do enough. The fact of the matter is – and it is a fact, not an assertion – that not even the Department for Transport (DfT) saw the bus franchising policy coming over the hill. The DfT wasn’t even consulted on the Greater Manchester devolution deal.

This was a policy that the DfT, the bus industry’s own sponsor department, neither expected nor wanted. It is harsh to then say that the voice of the industry is not loud enough. You can certainly ask how it is that major changes in bus policy come about without the relevant policy department being aware that this was happening, but that is hardly the fault of the CPT.

Formal dialogue

On the Bill itself, where the industry is also accused of silence, that is not true. The industry was engaged in the formal consultations last year. It has had a near constant dialogue with DfT officials over the shape and content of the Bill – as indeed have other interests. That’s not silence, that’s serious engagement.

I recall the deep sense of gloom and despondency that engulfed the industry when all of this kicked off. The Bill is considerably more benign than might have been the case – thanks to the quiet effective, informed dialogue. Sure, it’s a Bill the industry would rather not have, but given what happened – and it really is worth reminding ourselves how this all came about – the end result is considerably better than might have been the case. That did not happen through silence.

Passengers

Now, here’s a final reality check for the writer, who rightly asks about what passengers think, suggesting they will conclude that franchising is good because that is what local authorities have been saying, that franchising will lead to improvements in services.

Well, if passengers believe that franchising will lead to improvements, that’s because at a local level operators and senior managers have not been engaging effectively with their MPs, passengers and their wider stakeholder community. If the local passenger thinks it will be good to franchise, then the local operator only has itself to blame.

Voices heard

I would say this to the writer. Your voice has been heard and by the people who matter. You clearly have no idea how government works, although there’s no reason why you should.

You run a bus company. A good one, I hope, that provides the quality service that passengers want. In that case you have nothing to fear from this Bill.

But this Bill, unexpected even by the policy officials in the DfT responsible for bus policy, is considerably more benign that first feared.

It’s a Bill that has been informed by 30 years of quiet diplomacy and informed dealings with government – of both main parties. That for me is not silence.