First Bus demo: A wise leader gets off at the second-last stop

In April last year, East Lothian council were left with a predicament.

First bus, run by the First Scotland East group, had decided to terminate all of their services in the area . The company claimed it was a difficult decision, but that it simply did not make capitalist sense to keep the service going. It is another example, unfortunately, of First’s monopoly rule in the UK.

However, under pressure of a 1,000 Labour lead petition, the Council did something about it. They put the contracts out to tender and secured services from the Council-supported Lothian buses (one of the few, if not only, municipal bus companies left in the UK)  and some small local companies.

Like many things though, the issue of bus transport in the UK is one which is ultimately legislative.

Deregulation of buses by Thatcher in the 1985 Transport Act resulted in commercial or subsidised services. In 1985, service levels were declining – and they still are, despite the fact usage has remained static. And instead of encouraging competition, and so lower prices and better quality service, it created monopolies up and down the country. An investigation by the competition commission into deregulation predicted little over a year ago the exact problems we now face:

In Bristol  we have had  the same problems for years. Bus tickets for single journeys are ridiculously expensive, day tickets hardly worth it and passengers feel like they are “cornered-in”. And yet a solution has never been reached. The costs of a council run bus service are too high but at the same time we cannot let First continue with their monopoly.

Westminster tried to present a solution in 2008, when the Transport act encouraged new dimensions to quality partnerships. Lifted from First bus website they state:

“We believe the best way to tackle congestion and improve bus services for the future is to work closely with Local Authorities. We have signed Punctuality Improvement Partnerships (PIP) with the local councils.

These agreements commit to achieve real improvements through infrastructure changes, enforced parking regulations, technological advancements, introducing newer buses, increasing the number of easy access low floor vehicles and being more responsive to the needs of our customers. This includes the work we are doing on the Greater Bristol Bus Network.

We also worked closely with local authorities, stakeholders and developers during the multi-million shopping re-developments of Broadmead, Bristol and Southgate in Bath”

But, the word “quality” would not be used by any Bristol citizen to describe First’s service here. It is these frustrations that have lead to the creation of a Government e-petition:

However, I have difficulty seeing the power or benefits of such a petition. It is nice to suggest that Government petition will force First to re-think and re-evaluate their moral compass, but at the end of the day, they are working in a free market economy. First enjoys having our councillors and their customers jumping over barrels, and frankly won’t change whilst they are only accountable to their shareholders.

So what is the solution?

We need to join up and down the country to re-introduce regulation of the bus service by Councils – and sign a petition to such effect. To look at the benefits regulation of the buses have, we need only look to London.

Short-term, we need to look at contracts, we need to put new routes out to tender and we need to increase competition. We also need to hold First to the present agreements where applicable. And if all fails, look at the creation of a municipal bus company or increased subsidy to other companies, like Wessex Red.

What does confuse me is the participation of our representatives and indeed the mayor in the signing of such a petition! One, as a local issue, which will ultimately end up on his desk!

Although I support in kind these politicians coming along to talk about First and feel they do need to be challenged on affordability, quality and punctuality now, my question is why on earth are our politicians not doing anything about it!?

And why in the current budget review 2013/2014, is the only mentioned of increased funding in bus transport is for paper bus timetables?!! With an increased spend of £18,000?…Yet our night buses, which insures workers can get home and secures the safety of night traveller, are seemly not so important.




7 responses to “First Bus demo: A wise leader gets off at the second-last stop

  1. Mhairi – good points throughout. Can you start the petition on re-regulation by councils and post it here? I’d sign.

    I think the frustrations of passengers on First in Bristol are such that taking it to national rather than local government is justified. Local government doesn’t seem to ever have the power, the coherence or (sometimes) the inclination to sort out the buses, and it is made more complicated by the different LAs having different priorities.

    I wish it could be done on a sub-regional level, but it seems to fully join up the bus network in the sub-region requires a lot more than just the councils working together…unless your timely suggestion was enacted.

    • Hi Rob, thanks for your comments. I’m in the process of setting up the e-petition and will post it here.

      I would say that, in terms of the local Bristol situation, it appears to be inclination rather than power which is preventing any improvements being made to our buses services. I’m not saying individual councillors/parties don’t work hard to try and come up with a viable solution, but the “by thirds” election system we have in place has meant years of “hung councils” or changes of power every May, which means it is very difficult to get a policy through and then implemented efficiently and effectively. Simply put, we need to change the way our council operates before being able to tackle this sort of issue. The concept of all out elections every four years will hopefully result in easier implementation of policy (and accountability if all goes wrong!).

      The same issue plays regionally, which is why we do need more connected elections and councils – I suppose that opens up a completely different can of worms though!

      But at the end of the day, transport is integral to the working of the city, so we should really be looking to ensure we are getting value for public money and making travel in Bristol easy and affordable, regardless of what the private firms and their morals are doing.

  2. Thoroughly agree – like London routes should be tendered. Night bus fiasco needs to be looked at – what a waste of a £18000 spending increase. We need a Council that takes on First. All the evidence nationally can bend to pressure, but our spineless Council won’t apply it.

    Good first blog.

  3. iThis is an excellent piece with a viable alternative to the current ‘arrangements’. I totally support the actions proposed, not least holding the Mayor to account to change FirstBus’s stranglehold, not just pontificating about it.

  4. Pingback: Finding out the issues affecting you: whitehall road | Mhairi Threlfall·

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