Michael Dugher: Time to tackle power of the bus barons

THE independent Campaign for Better Transport revealed in a report recently that more than 2,000 bus routes have been cut since 2010 and that things are getting worse quickly, with nearly 500 bus services being altered or withdrawn last year alone. At the same time, bus fares are rocketing, going up by 25 per cent since 2010 – an increase five times faster than wage growth.

It’s clear that the bus operators have been cutting crucial routes that people rely on at the same time as hiking up fares to maximise their own profits. So it is no surprise that some of the big bus companies, like Stagecoach, are whinging about Labour’s plans to give communities more powers over how their local bus services are run. It would suit them down to the ground for things just to stay the same.

Currently, 67 per cent of the bus market is run by just five firms: Go-Ahead; Stagecoach; Arriva (under Deutsche Bahn); First Group and 
National Express. These big firms are doing very well indeed out of the current system. Together, they made £518m in 2012 and their bosses have enjoyed massive pay packages. For example, Stagecoach’s CEO, Martin Griffiths, was paid £2.2m this year, including a £600,000 bonus.

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Like the energy market, the bus market is broken and not working in the public’s best interests. We want to see this change and re-balance the bus market so communities and passengers have more power.

The top executives running the big bus companies are now trying to peddle a scare story, stating that local authorities would somehow be unable to handle the transfer of powers and it would come at untold cost. This is not only patronising, but completely unfounded.

Some firms, like Stagecoach, have also been trying to create an artificial distinction between fully commercial bus services and bus services subsidised by town halls. This is an attempt to make out that only subsidised bus services have been cut since 2010, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The reality is we don’t have two separate types of bus companies – some delivering commercial services and others delivering local government routes. Communities need a minimum number of routes in order to stay properly connected, but under the current arrangements outside London, bus companies are able to decide which routes they want to run.

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This means that if a local council feels that a particular route is of vital importance for people in the area – like a route that stops at the local hospital – they are forced into the position to find the money to subsidise the route that a profitable bus company running other services in the area could well operate.

On many occasions, bus operators have suddenly deemed a route as non-commercial and threatened to cancel the service. Local authorities then either have to hand over funding to the bus companies to keep the route going, or just let the service disappear. The latter is often just not an option.

The problem is all the power currently lies with the bus companies and not with passengers. City and county regions should be able to negotiate a comprehensive contract with bus companies that will ensure that operators not only get to run the most profitable routes in the area, but also have to run routes that are vital for the local communities as part of the overall deal.

This is how it works in London and it works very well. If it’s good enough for London, it should be good enough for English regions like Yorkshire. Since 1986 (the year the Conservatives deregulated bus services), passenger journeys on local bus services outside of London are down 37 per cent, whereas within London, where they enjoy the powers we want to extend to the rest of the country, there has been a 105 per cent increase.

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The likes of Stagecoach may benefit from the status quo, but the status quo is not serving passengers well enough. That’s why Labour will act fast and legislate to give cities and county regions greater control over local bus services. This will result in communities being able to determine routes, set fares and integrate and improve bus services.

I know some of the well-heeled bus barons are not in favour of Labour’s “Passenger Power” policy, but frankly, that’s just hard cheese. My job as Shadow Transport Secretary is to stand up for folk who rely on our local bus services, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.

Michael Dugher is the MP for Barnsley East and the Shadow Transport Secretary.