Are these worrying times?

Has the industry shot itself in the foot? Our man in Westminster seems ‘convinced’

Last week I said I would comment in more detail on Grant Shapps’ comments about buses to the Transport Select Committee when he appeared before it on 16 October. I don’t think they make for comfortable reading for the bus industry.

Two different things?

When he was asked by the Labour MP Daniel Zeichner why local authorities “can’t buy its bus company” – by which I assume what he really meant was why can’t local authorities be allowed to set up their own municipal bus companies – Mr Shapps said: “I do not know why previously and, yes, we are going to change it.

“The Prime Minister talked about this in his Manchester speech. He literally cited the London situation, exactly as you are doing now, and said that other cities should be able to do that… anywhere else should be able to do the same thing. Yes, you are now zoned in on our exact policy in this area.”

Actually, I think Mr Zeichner and Mr Shapps are talking about two different things. Mr Zeichner was asking about local authorities being able to buy/own their own municipal bus companies, while the Prime Minister’s Manchester speech was focused on allowing local authorities to introduce franchising – so Mr Shapps seems to have conflated the issue of municipal bus ownership with franchising, suggesting he may not be as on top of bus policy as one might hope.

But that’s not really my point.

Interesting development

It’s worth bearing in mind that Mr Zeichner used to be one of the Labour Party’s frontbench transport spokesmen. So the fact that a Conservative transport Secretary of State, and one that is generally seen as being to the right of the party, to openly saying that the Labour Party’s position on bus policy is “zoned in” on the Conservative Party’s policy on buses is an interesting development, don’t you think? If I was a bus operator, I would find this development rather sobering.

Of course, these remarks were made shortly after the government announced that it would develop a national bus strategy.

There’s always a danger in putting two and two together and making five, but it seems to me to be a reasonable assumption that this bus strategy is going to be far more positive about the “benefits” of franchising than any previous Conservative transport secretary has ever been.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that there are suggestions that the government might even make a financial contribution towards Great Manchester’s franchise proposals.

I’ve repeatedly said that I was dubious about the benefits of, and need for, a national bus strategy and, more recently, suggested that the industry needed to be careful what it wished for in calling for one.

I’m now more convinced than ever that the industry may have shot itself in the foot in doing so. If you are a supporter of the deregulated market, then I suggest that these are worrying times.