Saturday 25th June 2022
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.
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.
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.
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