BSOG: The underground warthog?

While Westminster and its political debates can be baffling, our mole normally manages to bring sense to it all, although this week he’s stumped by a wildlife analogy about BSOG. More importantly, the BSOG review is on the horizon, along with strong hints about possible changes to how rural buses are run. .

Yesterday (April 29) we had yet another Adjournment debate in the Commons about buses, this
time secured by the Conserv-ative MP for Dorset South, Richard Drax – and yes, you’ve guessed it, it was about the threat to rural buses as a consequence of cuts to local authority budgets.

It is the duty of constituency MPs to raise concerns of their constituents about local services, buses included, so we can’t complain about Richard Drax wanting a debate.

And, he will want to be seen to be doing something, to raise the issue in the Commons, so that he can look his constituents in the eye and say that he is “taking the matter up with the minister.”

But, as I said last week, there are no new solutions offered to solve the problems of budget and bus cuts.

So I just have this weary sense that in the course of the next few weeks and months, the matter will be raised again and again, and still with no solutions or novel thinking. So I started to ask my chums in Whitehall whether there was any innovative thinking going on in relation to bus policy?

It is fair to say that, generally speaking, there isn’t. I’m not that surprised. After all, if there is no money, there is no money. Simple.

Or is it? One of the things in some conversations was a worry that, deep down, the government is not yet extracting maximum value for money from the funding that it puts into the bus industry – principally through the Bus Service Operator’s Grant (BSOG).

Stephen Hammond has always regarded this grant as a blunt instrument, a point he made again in his response to Richard Drax’s Adjournment debate.

And I get a sense too that some Treasury officials still worry, at least from an intellectual point of view, that the bus market is not working as effectively as it should, or could, be.

There is a lingering feeling that competition for the market, as is the case with rail franchising and buses in London, rather than competition in the market, is a model worth pursuing.

I am not suggesting that we are suddenly about to see a renewed debate about the need for, and merits of, Quality Contracts.

I say it only because the intellectual policy wonks themselves worry about this, so it is an issue that lingers in the back of their minds.

The reality is that the local bus market is so fundamentally different from a rail franchise in so many respects, that making comparisons is ludicrous. But some people do.

For now, bus policy in general doesn’t seem to be keeping officials or ministers awake at night – at least at the strategic level.

There are detailed issues that keep officials busy and their in-trays full, and the next review of BSOG is one of them.

Stephen Hammond also mentioned in his response on the Richard Drax Adjournment debate that the Department for Transport “will shortly set out some other solutions for rural areas”.

So there is clearly work in progress. I await the announcement with bated breath, as I might have to eat my words about the lack of any new solutions.

I leave you with one passing observation.

In his Adjournment debate, Richard Drax described BSOG as “a sort of underground warthog”. Does any reader have any ideas as to what exactly he might have in mind?