The poor quality of bus debate

Why is the quality of political debate about buses – and importantly future policy – so poor, wonders our man in Westminster? According to the latest official independent survey, passengers don’t recognise the grim and gloomy pictured painted by re-regulationist MPs in a recent adjournment debate. .

While the focus of this column is on Westminster, the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament both have a clear and strong interest in bus policy. From time to time it’s appropriate and important to look at the nature and quality of the debate north of the border and across the river Severn in Cardiff.

After the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September, the direction and type of policies emerging from Holyrood may have a totally different content and feel if Alex Salmond gets his way.

I took a trawl through political comment about bus policy in Scotland – and was disappointed to see that the nature and quality of the debate is no better or different to the debate in England. The same goes for Wales. That should hardly surprise me. Why, after all, should the issues that drive bus policy in Scotland or Wales be any different to elsewhere in the UK?

Yet I can hear the howls of disagreement. The social and economic circumstances of Scotland and Wales are different, I will be told. There may be a greater need for subsidised services in both countries, for one reason or another, perhaps associated to issues like less car ownership, more diverse and more remote communities. I get that. But what constantly strikes me is that the quality of the debate seems so one-dimensional. The debate – about the need for subsidised services, to protect the concessionary travel regime despite its obvious and glaring faults and inequalities (e.g. rich people qualifying for concessionary travel) – is like playing a stuck record.

Where is the innovation in the debate? Where is the thinking about how policy, in England, Scotland or Wales, might evolve to reflect – or even predict – changing economic, social and technological developments? Yes, we have debates about the need for a universal smartcard, or audio-visual equipment on buses (something especially close to Baroness Kramer’s heart). But this is ordinary and hardly new.

Instead, we get political interventions from the likes of Graham Stringer MP (Labour, Blackley and Broughton) in a recent adjournment debate on buses when all he did was complain about the “billions” made by the Souter family since deregulation. No mention of the enormous contribution that the Souters have made to the bus sector, or the innovations Brian Souter has pioneered. I wonder what the bus industry would look like today without the entrepreneurship of Brian Souter? Instead, we get the politics of envy from the likes of Graham Stringer who has nothing better to contribute to the debate than complaints about Brian Souter being wealthy.

Graham Stringer says that “privatising and deregulating bus services has not helped the travelling public” but has allowed the Souter family “to game the system and make bus services worse”. Really Mr Stringer? The latest Passenger Focus survey of passenger attitudes show that overall satisfaction is 88%, up 4% on the previous survey. I am afraid, Mr Stringer, your assertion about the Souter family is not borne out by the facts, as represented by the people who actually matter – the passengers.

I wonder what the passenger satisfaction ratings were in the last years before deregulation? Oh, silly me. We don’t know, because independent passenger satisfaction surveys weren’t carried out and there was no independent passenger champion. You see, in the municipally and state-owned, regulated world, passenger attitudes didn’t matter.