Faced with the major collapse of rural bus ‘services’ in Suffolk, I have long been calling on both Suffolk County Council and our government to look at re-regulation of rural bus services. The response of both institutions has been largely negative, despite clear evidence that ‘competition’ and ‘market forces’ have done absolutely nothing to benefit rural users .
Yet re-regulation is not impossible.
Last Friday the five Tyne and Wear councils voted to start the consultation necessary to re-regulate their buses . It will be the first region to take the plunge since the silly and ideologically driven deregulation of bus services in the 1980s. Re-regulation will allow the region to aim once again for the efficiency, coverage and price which is standard for bus services in regulated London by giving bus companies franchises to run all local services, instead of letting them cherry-pick the ones on which they can make the most money.
Deregulated bus services are in a parlous state. Tyne and Wear was warned that without change, all local school buses would go; a further 200 bus routes would likely disappear, and concessionary child fares would vanish. However, if the councils take over the bus routes, they could use the current subsidy and profits to grow the service to make it meet the needs of all residents.
Just as we did in the old days.
It’s not rocket science is it?
Hardly surprising that other local authorities are showing interest in doing the same.
The big bus companies may well not be in favour of these schemes – and with good cause. According to the FT “Bus companies earn higher margins outside London.. Stagecoach makes an average of 17 per cent outside London, while the figure for Go-Ahead is 10 per cent.” The FT says that in contrast, average London operators make between 4 and 5 %.
Buses are Britain’s main form of public transport, and in the old days the concept of bus ‘services’ meant service: popular routes would fund socially necessary but less income-generating services elsewhere. De-regulation was heralded by the Thatcher administration as providing competition, but in fact since the 80s some big bus companies have used their size to see off other competitors creating local monopolies which do not benefit passengers at all . In Woodbridge, First Group recently were running identical routes against rival Anglian Buses at identical times. Anglian Buses no longer run these services, and Woodbridge residents have lost out.
Competition? Bus companies should be forced to compete with each other to provide proper services rather than to maximise profits. I once again call upon Suffolk County Council and my local MP, Dr Coffey, to do everything they can to make this possible.