Dear Grant and Sadiq

Saturday 25th June 2022

Extract from Grant Shapps’ letter of 23rd June to Sadiq Khan.

Dear Grant and Sadiq

I was intrigued to be quoted in Thursday’s letter (from you Grant to you Sadiq) so wondered if I could help by acting as a bit of an ‘honest broker’ between the two of you as the TfL funding row shows no sign of ending any time soon.

I do so with some trepidation as I don’t really do politics, certainly not party politics, and I realise there’s a lot of that in this, not least with a former London Mayor in Downing Street (as I write), but we are where we are.

It’s one reason why I’m always sceptical when the argument is put forward public transport (particularly buses) should be exclusively controlled by the public sector as happened pre 1986. That works so long as there’s a long term commitment to consistent and necessary funding, but as we’re now seeing in London, it falls apart when that funding is in doubt.

It was exactly why the Thatcher Government deregulated buses outside London in 1986. Local authority subsidies maintaining provincial bus networks, largely provided by state run bus companies, were failing to keep up with 1970s ravaging inflation and passenger numbers were in institutionalised decline. The situation was unsustainable and although it took a decade or so for the newly deregulated and privatised world to adjust, by the mid 1990s there was clear evidence where locally based private sector bus companies brought entrepreneurial flair and innovation to their local market and worked hand in glove with local authorities taking bus priority seriously then the situation could be turned round and more passengers attracted to travel by bus.

In Brighton & Hove we consistently grew the market each year such that by the early 2010s more than double the number of passengers were travelling by bus than in the early 1990s – and that wasn’t a doubling from a low base (as some boastful percentage increases often are) but was achieved in a city with the highest bus use per population outside of London.

This was achieved by resolute attention to continual improvements to frequencies, a compelling high profile price offer, regular new vehicle investment, outstanding customer service and excellent marketing, promotion and information provision rather than having to worry about cuts in public funding. Meanwhile the city’s local authority pro public transport policy delivered bus priority measures, real time information at improved bus stops and, importantly, effective parking management, pricing and enforcement. A policy pursued by administrations that were Labour, Conservative and Green at various times. It was a recipe for success, and still is.

We now call it ‘partnership working’ but in the early days we just did it as the obvious and common sense way of working together with a huge dose of trust between the parties to achieve the common aim of attracting more bus passengers year on year and making buses ‘part of the fabric of the city’.

These principles need to be followed in London to turn around what has become an institutionalised passenger decline (quite aside from Covid) principally due to snail-like unattractive journey times and a complete dearth of effective information and marketing and which on current trajectories seems set to continue. Unsustainable low fares and excessive operational costs add to the toxic mix.

I’m not suggesting deregulating London is the answer (it isn’t) but TfL must get back to being renowned for excellence in information provision (eg a bus map) and marketing and promoting its bus network and ensure there’s effective priority for buses on the roads to speed them up.

You see that poster? It’s promoting a ride “out and about on route 17” in London Bridge bus station; except you can’t read it as pedestrians are dissuaded from walking that side of the shelter.
I took a risk and walked in the roadway to take a photograph for a close up view. Is this really the best TfL can do to promote a bus route to tourists?

There’s definitely scope for some judicious frequency reductions as have been introduced almost week by week over the last twelve months (and as my Tracker shows) but with more effective bus priority and consequential more efficient scheduling there’s huge scope to reduce costs while maintaining services. You only have to look at the number of buses standing idle at termini to see the current inefficiencies.

This cannot be achieved overnight and central Government must accept a longer transition programme for revenue support is needed which I note in your letter Grant, you state you’re prepared to consider – “we will continue revenue support, in further temporary deals if necessary” – so there’s a good basis to go forward together which I see, Grant, you see as “a reset of the relationship” and I see from your various tweet threads on Twitter, Sadiq, that you also want to meet up with Grant.

It would seem sensible the next step is indeed for you both to meet (certainly within the next three weeks before the money runs out again) and agree some timelines and actions for continued revenue support. What about a gradual year on year reduction over the next five years to give time for the Boroughs to get on board with further bus priority? Perhaps, you Grant could help nudge some of the more reluctant Conservative controlled ones to play ball?

There’s no reason why an effective and attractive bus network in London can’t see growing patronage again AND without the need for subsidy bearing in mind all the benefits the capital has with population density, land utilisation, a vibrant economy and disincentives to using a car including congestion charging, ULEZ charges and hefty parking charges. Many provincial towns without all these attributes manage to do it.

When you meet you can also hammer out an agreement on capital funding.

It’ll certainly be worth getting things sorted in London, Grant, as there’s going to be more of this as other metropolitan areas have been led to believe arrangements hitherto applicable in London are the way forward for them – and dare I say as encouraged by central Government (Osborne’s devolution deal in Manchester and Johnson’s positive spin on the London franchise model in Bus Back Better).

The mindset becomes to chase public funding instead of chasing growth in passenger journeys, which is where we were pre 1986.

You’re going to be a busy man Grant. London could be the first of many. Good luck.

Roger French

For readers not on social media or not up to speed with developments on Thursday, here’s a link to Grant Shapps’ letter to Sadiq Khan containing the above quote and here’s one of Sadiq Khan’s responses on Twitter. And here’s a link to the London Bus Cuts Tracker I quoted and which I update every week on my website.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu

30 thoughts on “Dear Grant and Sadiq

Add yours

  1. While not bemoaning the additional support for London, it would be good if there was more support for much of the rest of the country.

    It will take a long time for passenger numbers to return to a more stable level. There are likely to be cuts, but if these come too soon it will stifle recovery.


    1. London has had about £4.6B The rest of England about £1.4B. A case can be made for London to get slightly more support but not the level it has received

      In effect the rest of England is being starved of funding in order to prop up TfL and that cannot be right

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Deregulation may have worked in Brighton and Hove but in most other places it has lead to the near total collapse of bus services. A part of that has been caused by deregulation. The small to medium size towns have generally had their bus garages closed and are served by garages remote from the town and frequently it is by multiple different operators with tickets not interchangeable It has lead to high cost and poor reliability of the services and constant changes of operators. The large operator as well have to high a cost base to serve these sort of towns well

    These towns need a small local operator that uses suitable size buses. The market as well is usually to small to support more than one operator and that’s where the regulations get in the way, Fragment that market and it simply does not work

    Change is needed but I do not see that change happening if anything the situation will get worse when the Covid funding is removed

    To turn the situation some funding is needed s well as changes to the regulation of services. Personally I do not see these so called Enhanced partnerships making much of a difference

    We are already starting to see a trickle of cuts to service but by October that trickle could turn into a flood unless more funning is found. Any funding though needs to be linked to genuine improvements to services and to driving up passenger numbers


    1. Skipton being one of those medium size towns where bus services have seen massive decline in recent years.

      When Pennine were around, the town had strong bus links with many nearby towns and villages, once Pennine closed, for a short while NYCC provided a skeleton service on nearly all routes using mini buses, the one exception being the Burnley route which had already been covered by competition from Transdev. Finally after many months of suffering, NYCC increased frequencies on a good number of routes, but still used mini buses. The only exception was the Settle route which Kirkby Lonsdale took on using full size buses on an increased frequency after a few months of suffering NYCC infrequent mini buses.

      First had a route from Skipton via Ilkley to Leeds for many years even for a lengthy period after the train service had improved. Evening buses got cut, then Sunday ones (replaced eventually by Dalesbus from Ilkley to Skipton) and now the whole section from Ilkley to Skipton got cut, replaced by a separate Ilkley to Skipton service, now provided by a different operator and not connecting with the Leeds service at Ilkley with no through ticketing. Yes there are train services which are faster and more frequent, but are a lot more expensive compared to the price of a First West Yorkshire ticket which was for quite a time valid out to Skipton.

      Then you’ve got Upper Wensleydale, for a large number of years, through workings via Grassington were provided by Horseless Carriage Services, 6 days a week with both morning and evening peak buses from Skipton, along with services every 2 hours to Hebden. Now all Upper Wesnleydale sees is a community minibus a few times a day, mostly off peak where a change is needed in Grassington, and Hebden sees 2 NYCC journeys 3 days a week, and 2 community minibus afternoon only workings 5 days a week but only to Grassington! All these reductions happened overnight when Horseless Carriage Services closed through retirement, the only part of the Skipton to Upper Wensleydale/Hebden service which survived in tact was the stretch from Skipton to Grassington.

      Skipton has seen some improvements to other services recently, but these improvements soon went back to how they used to be, e.g. the Clitheroe/Preston bus went from 2 hourly to hourly with some express workings, but’s gone back to a 2 hourly stopper, the Burnley service went from an all stops local bus to an increased frequency faster bus with an extension to Manchester, but that’s gone back to square one again, and the long standing Keighley services went up to every 20 mins, then dropped back to half hourly again a few months later! Oh and let’s not forget all those villages south of Skipton that at for many years had a good level of service to Skipton, now all they see is the basic 66 on main roads, the M4 with a change needed at Cross Hills, or no buses at all except for limited demand responsive transport.

      Finally, apart from the Keighley bus, and some really limited early evening workings on other services, there are no evening buses anywhere in Skipton!

      So yes, some medium size towns have seen their network shafted, and it can’t all be blamed on trains!


  3. TfL Funding

    The temporary funding to TfL funding out yesterday. Unconfirmed report suggest that the funding has been extended another 2 weeks

    The issue seems to be that TfL is not delivering the cuts it promised

    In the end TfL is going to have to live within its means but seems unwilling to do that. There is plenty of scope for TfL to deliver budget cut with little impact on passengers

    The other answer is for TfL to grow passenger numbers. I suspect though the fundamental changes to the market have occurred and passenger numbers are not going to recover much more


  4. An excellent piece . . . and congratulations on this blog being creditted!!!

    Having read the Shapps letter . . . I don’t think a meeting any time soon will help . . . bearing in mind that, in it, Khan has effectively been called a liar more than once!!

    I really don’t see a way forward for TfL funding at present . . . any deals will be short-term for political reasons.

    I also don’t see that TfL can “change its spots” in re publicity, traffic priorities or network planning . . . it has become a bloated monolith in the last 10 years, which cannot or will not listen to alternatives . . . TfL is always right, and therefore everyone else is always wrong.

    It was much the same in the 1980s . . . London Buses (as it then was) had become inflexible and unwilling to change . . . privatisation (and the necessary restructuring at the operating companies) broke the mould and London, for maybe 20 years, had a world-class bus service once again.

    Without (1) the will to adapt and (2) the political backing, there is no future. It’s all rather sad . . .

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Office for National Statistics gives England’s population as 56.5m and the website gives London’s as 9m, which makes London’s proportion a shade under 16%.


  5. I just don’t think there’s a magic wand, or a single solution that works everywhere. Sorry.

    As so often, success lies not in a big thing, but in lots of small things coming together. Everyone has to play their part. The bus won’t succeed unless the car is restricted. People have to be prepared to give the bus a go. Operators have to respect their drivers, and passengers, and treat them accordingly; and vice versa. It’s about attitude. Can we do it? Yes, Brighton and Hove shows that, if nothing else. But everyone has to play their part. That’s the hard bit. Where do we start? When everyone feels so much under the cosh, can we afford to. Not in cash, but in attitude?

    Look at the local bus network. Is it really a place we want to be, or one to avoid, as far as possible? Or do we just play endlessly the unofficially brit National Anthem, jobsworth, it’s more than me jobsworth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Essex Smurf . . . quite right; there is no magic wand to be waved . . . bus operators can try all they like, but unless there is tangible “buy-in” from the local politicians (who have the ability to restrict the car) then success is unlikely.
      Perhaps we should give credit to those operators who do try, even though they may not succeed . . . at least they tried!!
      It can never be just about frequencies, or route networks, or cheaper fares, or network tickets . . . they all are part of the jigsaw.

      Why did B&H succeed?? The Council bought into the concept (aided, of course, by Roger!!).
      Why Oxford?? Why Nottingham?? Why Lothian??
      They’re big enough and savvy enough to understand the long-term benefits of buses.

      You say “look at the local bus network”. Maybe we should look at the town it serves . . . if the town centre is unappealing . . . why would the passenger travel there??

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Brighton & Hove is very different to the small and medium size towns in England

        The population of Brighton and Hove is about 250,000 and has quite a high population density. It also benefits from having a University and also still gets a fair bit of tourism

        Brighton also has a garage within its operating area and is pretty much the only operator in Brighton and Hove itself all of which helps keep costs down


  6. Great piece, thanks.
    Just to prove I read right to the end there’s a tiny trypo in the last line. Guessing you meant as quoted or I quoted. Feel free to delete/ edit this comment if you wish.


  7. Very clear and impressive. Perhaps just one omission I’m surprised at – no mention of integration (with rail, other buses). Of the travel I want or need to do, only about 50% is practical to do by bus/train – the other half is often impractical due to lack of co-ordination (the othe main factor being lack of evening/weekend services. So, if all that was corrected, my use of public transport would double – much better than 10%! – and I don’t think I’m a very unrepresentative case. And, like Roger, I’m a bus-and-train user, and it’s very dismal seeing things separated all the time into ‘bus issues’, or ‘train issue’.

    Making better integration involves timetabling, better quality interchanges, better publicity, and enabling through-ticketing. Some of these are already happening – gradually. The thing that isn’t seems to be bus and train managers making time to communicate. But – as Roger says – the better way out of the fix is to grow passenger journeys, so….

    Another way Grant Shapps could help is by urging the case in cabinet for better funding of local authorities; it’s no good a bus company asking a council to spend money on bus-priority or better bus-shelters (in return, say for more evening/week-end buses) if the money just isn’t there due to central government cuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Integration is a good thing but like the Holy Grail, much more difficult than it looks.

      Is this compartmentalisation a Brit thing? Maybe we have to live in little boxes. Do we have to think in them too?

      My local op seems to think the answer is to separate the urban and interurban network. In a world of lack of resources, is that the most efficient way to run bus services or how your passengers think?


  8. The last comment hit the nail on the head for me. Hampshire and other shire counties see their funding cut year on year, so that there is very little money for bus services.(or many other things). Look at Northants with its lack of rural buses. Why do not the (usually) Conservative Chairmen of County Councils request more money from the Chancellor, indeed insist on it?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Some ideas on how bus operating costs can be reduced without reducing service levels, some of which could be controversial:

    1. Remove cycle lanes where there are no bus lanes. Dedicated cycle lanes adds to traffic congestion which can slow buses considerably.
    2. Reduce ‘dead mileage’ from bus garage to start of route, by either reallocating bus routes, or introducing ‘split contracts’ For example, the 208 could be run by Go Ahead from Orpington and Stagecoach from Catford. (If you started with a blank piece of paper, would bus routes be operated from the same garages as at present? I realise that these may reduce the competitive nature of contracts, but I’m sure some solution could be found.)
    3. Remove the ‘ban’ on end to end running of buses. Some ends of route do not require the same level of service as the middle bits of routes.
    4. Reduce stand time at the end of routes, especially on high frequency routes. On such routes, drivers should have a 5 or 10 minute break, then turn round, irrespective of what the timetable says, providing buses are fairly evenly spaced out on the route.
    5. Can TfL enter into a contract with oil companies in a bid to reduce running costs. I assume that Stagecoach, Arriva etc have such contracts in place and have the necessary financial muscle, but what about the smaller companies such as HCT and Sullivan Buses? Could they similarly benefit?

    I’m not sure how much this would save, but as one supermarket chain says, ‘Every little bit helps.’


  10. West Norfolk Community Transport show what a good local small operator can do. Two of the large operators gave up on Kings Lynn but WNCT provides good and frequent service including some Sunday services

    It is a typical modest size English town with a population of about 45,000. The demographics are probably typical for towns of this size

    Many town the size of Kings Lynn that have little more then a skeleton service and who knows what will happen in October


  11. It really frustrates me how the UK cannot consistently improve public transport. Sure there are isolated examples such as Brighton & Hove, Transdev Blazefield, Lothian, Nottingham etc. But these are dwarfed by huge swathes of mediocrity (Arriva, First, Stagecoach should have national standards as national operators).

    Meanwhile the French have reintroduced trams into all there large cities that want them, and are now introducing BRT into small to medium size settlements. If only UK towns and cities could have beautiful buses like these , something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen on.


  12. These are buses-pretending-to-be-trams. They clearly work because the city authorities are willing to put the necessary infrastructure and priority measures. I wonder how much the tickets are priced?


    1. In France they tend to have wider roads. In the UK the medium size mart towns have narrow and twisting roads with no room for a bus lane. Frequently a narrow twisting A road roads through the town as well

      It is compounded by the local councils giving more priority to cars than buses

      There is not much you can do about an A road going through a town without a very expensive by pass being built but they could close all the car parks in the town and provide car parking on the edge of the town and have an integrated bus service/P&R

      Perhaps as another idea a small annual levy on each car parking space which is used to improve and support bus service

      We need to move the priority from cars to public transport

      Radical and contentious no doubt but if things carry on as they are these towns may have no bus service they don’t have much left now


      1. Many roads in French cities are as narrow as the UK, they tackle these in some cases by restricting them to access only to properties and voila, the buses flow smoothly.

        Here, town centre car parks could be reduced in quantity gradually as part of an enhanced partnership with the bus operator who in turn gradually increases capacity to compensate. With each phase the roads would be less congested and the buses would speed up a bit encouraging modal transfer. Now that would be an ambitious BSIP!


      2. I found this visualisation of how the BRT in Aix-en-Provence was routed through the city. It makes for interesting viewing even if like me you don’t understand the French commentary.


  13. Excellent piece and good to see you credited. I agree that in time London can be self-sufficient and that buses can be made attractive. In addition to the points you make, the bus is also in competition with the likes of scooters, bicycles, mini-cabs in a way it wasn’t 10 years ago. The move to active travel has resulted in the re-configuration of roads in London, including the removal of bus lanes and a general increase in bus journey times. Further, buses often dawdle or wait at stops to regulate the service. This all combines to make the service less attractive.

    Journey times need to be consistent as well as sped up. If one day a bus can take say 1 hour to complete a journey and say 1 hour 15 minutes on another it makes it very tough to run a good efficient service. It will need to be combination of addressing all points to get a good reliable service not needing a subsidy.

    Our politicians now need to put London, the country and passengers first, meet up and come up with a solution. It sounds like no one wants more cuts, so they should get together, cancel the proposed bus cuts and work out how that can be financially achieved. If your words can facilitate such a meeting, and dare I say help reach an agreement, we will all be very grateful. Perhaps such a meeting needs facilitation from a non-politicians to help bring the sides together.


    1. When buses are classed as High Frequency then all they need to do is to maintain the headway rather than hang about at stops and terminuses


  14. Well it’s definitely an honour (I think!) for your research to be quoted by a government minister.

    One of the reasons reasons that Brighton & Hove prospered was because RF was in charge for over twenty years which was enough time to formulate a plan and stick to it until it gave results.

    Compare that with my local operator First Essex. None of the current seven directors have been in place for two years yet. How can you build long term relationships with local authorities on that basis. .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry. A fellow local, but I think I have yet to see any evidence that First Essex have any serious interest in quality of service. Growth to them means just laying their hands on every bit of subsidy they can, and cutting whatever corners they have to in order to achieve it. Essentially it is the classic cowboy that we were used to in the 1980s to the early 2000s. The difference is I suspect the Traffic Commissioners no longer have the interest or the resources; sadly. The passengers are kept in the dark, and fed bull*. ECC are happy with “something for nothing”, just about the whole of their interest, however it’s dressed up. If there were any realistic prospect of effective franchising it would call the cowboys bluff, but not with ECC who never monitored their contracts. First of course moved out of London, maybe for the same reason, and the management fetched up in easier Essex.


      1. In fairness, let me put the other side. For reasons we have canvassed (inertia) I suspect in the circumstances First Essex find themselves, they simply have no alternative if they are to meet the financial requirements First have put upon them, within the necessary timescale. Welcome to the real world.


  15. As a local Brighton and Hove resident I really admire and love the work that you helped achieve here, however almost everything that you’ve mentioned that was a success to Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company sadly is slowly coming undone.

    Bus Priority is becoming implemented less and less, and in some cases even being removed (St Peter’s Bus Lane for example with more areas in the Valley Gardens area to be taken away still).

    Customer Service is falling, with passengers being given poor confusing information and also being late or not given out at all (such as the latest fare increase warning not even being put on the fleet).

    Marketing also seems to be a shambles now, especially since the retirement of Mike. Bus Times has been cancelled and there is often little to no information on the regency routes or breeze up to the downs. Even worse, timetables changes are consistently late and show incorrect times until they are updated.

    Even fleet pride has being dropping year after year. If only companies like B&H followed on from previous successful management and continued the positive attitude and spiral in passenger numbers the company and public transport could be an even bigger success. As you also mentioned it’s good strong partnerships that also aid success but sadly the local council is too concerned about cycling than investing sustainable public transport and the network.

    If Brighton and Hove has gone this way and lost its edge then why would TfL bother to change? Until there are passionate people on all sides of the spectrum working together things will never change and only become worse.

    Liked by 1 person

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