The war over Tyne & Wear’s interest in a Quality Contract Scheme will end this year, but how will we manage the peace? – writes Arriva’s Nigel Featham

The bullets in the great Tyne & Wear Quality Contract Scheme (QCS) war have all been fired and there is a temporary halt to hostilities as both sides take a breather. Such an adversarial engagement was only to be expected – it follows that in making a case for taking over the running of local bus services, Nexus, the region’s PTE, was bound to attack the record of incumbent operators while operators themselves were bound to criticise plans they saw as unnecessary and undeliverable.

Little opportunity to make a point has been lost over the past few months as both sides have gone head to head in a bid to win the argument. I don’t propose to go through those submissions in detail, after all, arguments in favour and against a QCS are well documented and publicised by now, and it could be argued that ship has already sailed.

 

A critical test case

The ITA’s decision is expected in early spring so a more important issue for me is this: ‘What’s going to happen when, having evaluated all of the arguments, the ITA has made its decision?’ What’s the landscape going to look like in 2015 and beyond – not just in Tyne & Wear, but also throughout the UK?

The proposal to introduce a QCS in Tyne & Wear is being closely watched by a number of parties, not least other ITAs (particularly those who could yet embark on a QCS path themselves) and those bus operators who haven’t had to join in the discussion yet due to the geography of their businesses. A number of plans are on hold until the outcome is known – what happens in Tyne & Wear will have huge ramifications for the bus industry. It’s a critical ‘test case’.

 

The QCS won’t get the nod

We have to wait and see what that decision is going to be first but, without wanting to be premature, I can only envisage one outcome to the ITA’s deliberations – the QCS won’t get the nod.

Why do I feel that’s going to be the final decision? Without labouring the point the Nexus QCS proposal for Tyne & Wear would just be the start of bigger problems, not a solution to existing issues. The holes in the proposal are just too big to fix – the figures don’t add up, it’s too high risk and even Nexus acknowledges it could end up losing £113m.

Plus, if the ITA were by any chance to approve the plan, it would signal the start of a legal dogfight as operators refuse to meekly hand over their businesses for zero compensation. There shouldn’t be any need
for that, hopefully, as the voluntary partnership agreement currently on the
table should win out.

 

The bus travelling public

A largely unheralded facet of the process has been the lack of interest from the bus travelling public – there has been scant coverage in North East consumer media on the QCS. Our own focus groups support this view. Most passengers are not going to be really engaged in debate about a QCS until routes start shifting, fares start going up and their regular bus doesn’t show up.

This not only reflects the view that the public doesn’t really think anything needs to change, it also casts doubt on claims, from both sides of the divide, to have the public on their side. Does the public, if it was interested, really want to see spats between operators and the transport authority, or do they want to see evidence that both parties are focused on satisfying their transport needs? Sometimes the QCS debate has given the impression that the passengers are the last people who count.

 

Victory

So, to repeat, my gut feeling is that the QCS won’t get the go-ahead, so what’s going to happen then? What is the peace going to be like after the hostilities have ceased and when both parties have to sit down and work together in a new partnership after two years of taking up contrary positions?

In the first instance it can be assumed that, if the QCS doesn’t go ahead, both sides will claim a victory. What does this mean? Operators will say they’ve stopped a QCS happening, and Nexus will state it’s done its job in exploring options, and has been vindicated because it’s obtained more concessions from operators.

Fine, but there’s a lot more to it than that – both sides will have to get over the lost two years, the stasis of the past 24 months, and the vast amounts of money spent on the QCS ‘exploration’.

 

Catching up on lost time

It will be in both parties’ interests to agree, move on and embrace a renewed focus on joint working. Neither side needs to indulge in working out who’s the victor because there will be no victor other than the public. Neither side needs to score points because there’s a big job to do in getting the show back on the road and catching up on lost time. Instead of having more disagreement, argument and counter-argument, we can all focus on the matter in hand – improving bus services together.

I remain confident that matters will proceed smoothly and cordially – despite differences of opinion on the QCS, the relationship between Nexus and operators has continued in a professional and courteous manner, a testament to the efforts of all parties.

 

Learn from others’ mistakes

But, as stated, this isn’t just a Tyne & Wear issue. Other ITAs, politicians, councils, and operators should take heed of the process that’s been playing out in front of them. Going down a forced QCS route is unreliable, particularly when there’s no need to do so, when it represents a huge gamble and when it wastes time and money that could be better expended. Partnership between operators and transport planners remains the optimum solution for providing and improving bus services.

Common ground can always be found. Maybe, on this occasion, Nexus was ill-advised to take out a large sledgehammer to crack a relatively small nut. Maybe the operators were too slow in responding to Nexus’ concerns. I believe the most vital lesson for other ITAs and operators is to learn from others’ mistakes – look carefully at what’s gone on in Tyne & Wear and consider the challenges such a course of action entails. Nexus, to their credit, have seized that particular nettle so others can make more comfortable decisions on their own in future.

 

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war

The Tyne & Wear partnership deal I anticipate will set a benchmark, along with other proven and successful partnerships, for what can be achieved. In that respect, the bar has been raised. At the same time the QCS debate can be put to bed forever (except, possibly, where it is considered for the right reasons, namely where services are so poor it’s the only solution).

Of course, time may prove my prediction wrong, but I sincerely hope not for the reasons outlined. However, the next time a policy decision of this magnitude rears its head, I would urge everyone to remember the words of Winston Churchill: ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’

 

About the author:

Nigel Featham is regional managing director for Arriva in Yorkshire and the North East. He joined Arriva in 2008 and was previously managing director of Network Warrington.

 

This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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