“Jeremy Corbyn takes the bus route to victory” bellows the headline of The Guardian in response to the Labour leader’s somewhat unexpected raising of the issue of the decline of bus services at Prime Minister’s Questions. (I say decline, you should read this as crisis if you read any of the material shared on Facebook since the Campaign for Better Transport published their latest report earlier this week).
Sadly Mr Corbyn’s true intentions are illustrated in the detailed account of PMQs. To quote the Guardian account: “He (Corbyn) says people across the nation have a right to regulated bus services.”
Is that really what matters, Jeremy? The regulation? Are you sure? Should you not be more concerned with providing as good a service as possible with the funding available rather than wasting a large proportion of that funding on a needless layer of public sector regulation? Because make no mistake, full scale regulation of bus services would create hundreds, if not thousands of public sector jobs. This has a massive cost implication.
Full scale regulation would also lead to the extermination of small bus companies. As there would be fewer services running (“economy savings” from regulation = fewer buses), there would be more competition between contractors to provide the services. Because tendering for these services would be massively complicated, this would favour large bus companies and multi-nationals.
The loss of any competition to these large scale contractors would also lead to these contractors having control over the pricing of any future contract because there wouldn’t be any tangible competition.
So, a council would be left with a set of unresponsive bus services at ever increasing cost, blaming the operator against whom they could not take sanctions because there is no alternative. Is that really what you want, Jeremy? The same level of massive decline not seen since the days of the National Bus Company? Perhaps it is time for politicians such as Corbyn to accept that not all public sector institutions are perfect, nor is every commercial organisation inherently evil.
Allow me to present a manifesto…
Is there an alternative? Possibly. The current system isn’t broken, more starved of cash and competent management. The first thing to sort out is ticketing. If we could make this seamless to the passenger, then that is most of the battle won. Most areas now have multi-operator ticketing and many of these schemes are led by the operators rather than the councils or PTEs. Multi-operator ticketing schemes need to be seen as a replacement for operator-led ticketing. If these schemes could be effectively developed in a way which is fair to operators and passengers alike, then everyone wins.
Next thing to address is the old demon of competition. Councils could have the option to veto competitive services, or to arrange co-operative and complementary timetables. As part of this, the public sector desperately needs more competent, impartial and responsive management rather than the career desk occupants employed by many locally.
Sort out ticketing and competition and you have the foundations of a system to build a bus network which can only provide better services, services which are engineered to respond to demand.
The councils can then return to what should be their core role of procuring services to fit the gaps between those services which are not served by commercial routes. These need to be procured properly – not adhering to the latest obsessions with filling in questionnaires about modern slavery and environmental policies, but actually delivering services in keeping with the local commercial networks.
Most tendered services have been (and many still are) provided on a lowest bidder basis. This has resulted in some services being provided by unsuitable operators, who don’t care about the services they provide and take no pride in doing so. We’ve all see the sort of thing – services with scruffy vehicles and drivers. No destination display, or a sheet of A4 in the window with something scrawled on it in marker pen. Unsuitable vehicles. The community sector is just as guilty of this as commercial bus operators are. All of this needs to be addressed in contracts and enforced properly. Suitable, well presented vehicles and staff are essential to attract more of the public to use these services. More public using public transport leads to more public transport.
So Mr Corbyn, you’ll have to excuse me for correcting you. The public don’t deserve regulated bus services. They deserve better and more co-ordinated bus services.