Bus privatisation attacked as transport chief hints at changes for First and Arriva bus networks

The leader of Leeds City Council launched an extraordinary attack on public transport privatisation, calling the running of buses and trains by private companies “disastrous”.

Bus services in West Yorkshire need to change, according to an influential transport chief.

The comments came during a discussion on public transport at a meeting of Leeds City Council’s decision-making executive committee.

References were made about a letter sent by the head of a regional transport committee, expressing concern over the future of the city’s two largest bus operators, claiming the contracts for both were up for sale.

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Responding to the concerns, council leader Judith Blake said: “I am not sure any of us will be really comfortable until we get to the point where we can re-regulate out the bus services in our city.

Bus services in West Yorkshire need to change, according to an influential transport chief.

“I think it has been proved on buses and rail that the work done on privatisation and deregulation has been nothing short of disastrous for the travelling public, and we will do everything we can within the limited powers we have at the moment to make sure we prioritise and keep the pressure on various bus companies.

“For those working for devolution, a priority is to get greater local control over our public transport systems.”

The comments followed a letter sent to regional MPs by the chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) transport committee Coun Kim Groves (Lab). It said bus services were “entering an uncertain period”, adding First Group PLC was looking to sell its bus operations, while there were “indications” that German state-owned transport company Deutche Bahn was looking to sell its Arriva operations in the UK.

Coun Groves’ letter states: “You will be aware of the recent announcement by First Group PLC of its intention to sell its ownership of its UK bus companies.

“This, together with indications from Deutsche Bahn that it is seeking to sell its Arriva operations in the UK suggests we are entering an uncertain period for the operation of the City Region’s most-used mode of public transport.”

The letter added that WYCA had a 20-year plan to deliver sustainable bus services in the region, stating: “We have worked closely with bus operators to deliver the first stages of our Bus Strategy and are entering into a formal alliance with them.

“We will continue to work with the management of the current bus companies to deliver our shared objectives but I expect the recent announcements will bring both opportunities and threats.”

She also warned changes would have to be made to the way bus services are governed, adding: “I recently met with the Managing Director of First’s UK Bus Division and with senior managers at Arriva Yorkshire to explain how the Combined Authority wishes to take an active role in setting out to the prospective purchasers our priorities for bus in [the] city region. However, this current situation prompts further thoughts as to how the current governance model may need to change to safeguard bus networks in the event of changes in the commercial market. We have raised this with senior officials at the Department for Transport and you may wish to use your networks at Westminster in this regard.”

A meeting is now expected to take place in Westminster between Coun Groves and West Yorkshire MPs on Tuesday, July 16 to discuss transport issues affecting the region.

Responding to Coun Blake’s comments, Paul Matthews, managing director of First West Yorkshire, said: “Two years ago we announced we would invest £71m in 284 new ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020 and this commitment has not changed.

“This investment was part of a citywide strategy, in partnership with Leeds City Council, to encourage behaviour change by making public transport a more attractive option and we will shortly have delivered over half of these vehicles for Leeds, with 20 more vehicles arriving in the coming weeks.

“First West Yorkshire, Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority share the objective of doubling passenger numbers by 2030 and on the routes where new buses have been introduced, we have seen passenger growth of up to five per cent, which is bucking the national trend of declining bus passenger numbers. In addition to our investment in new vehicles, the local authority is investing in five bus routes, making city centre improvements and investing in the popular Leeds Park & Ride scheme.

“We are committed to working in partnership to deliver the best bus services for the region. By working together, local authorities and bus operators can make a real impact on congestion and air quality, provide better services for our customers, support local economies more effectively and ultimately help to increase passenger numbers.”

The company did not comment on the letter from Coun Groves.

Arriva was contacted but did not respond.