Ahead of ALBUM’s annual conference next week, the association’s chair has called on the next government to offer reassurance to smaller operators

 

ALBUM chairman Ben Colson (pictured)

 

The next government should work with the bus industry to find a way of “managing out” operators who find themselves unable to work under a regulated business model, according to Ben Colson, the new chair of ALBUM (Association of Local Bus Company Managers).

Colson offers his personal views in an exclusive interview for the The ALBUM Report 2015, a new publication produced by Passenger Transport, ahead of this year’s ALBUM conference, which will take place near Chester on May 12-13.

At time of going to press, polling stations in the 2015 general election had not yet opened. However, whoever forms the next government, it seems clear that more powers will be devolved to the ‘city regions’, and this is likely to include new controls over local bus services.

ALBUM’s membership is composed of managers at Britain’s independent and municipal bus companies, which make up roughly a fifth of the fleet. Colson believes that some of these companies could disappear completely if bus networks are regulated by public tendering authorities, and he believes the next government should ensure that they receive compensation.

“Companies won’t be leaving the market because they have collapsed financially or been otherwise unsuccessful, it will
be only because the government has arbitrarily changed the rules,” he explains.

“Under those circumstances, doesn’t the government owe it to the companies that they have put out of business to compensate them for the assets they have previously bought in good faith?”

“I think it’s incumbent upon them to give some reassurance to those who might be affected negatively.”

He continues: “It’s not in government’s interest long term, it’s not in local authorities’ interest long term either, for operators to slow down their investment – because that will affect the environment, it will affect local economies and it will affect the economics and the future for bus manufacturers and suppliers.

“It’s entirely the wrong signal to send.”

Colson took over as chair of ALBUM last Autumn, less than a year after he and his colleagues sold their independent bus business, Norfolk Green, to Stagecoach. He believes that the issue of re-regulation is of particular importance to smaller bus companies.

“Is it a matter of concern to ALBUM members? Yes it is. It’s bound to be because unlike the PLCs their very future existence is at stake,” he says.

“A PLC’s future may be at risk in that area, but the future of their business is not under threat. Whereas for an independent or a smaller operator, based solely in one area, their whole future is potentially at stake. So it’s quite a matter of concern really.”

Colson believes that the Quality Contracts mechanism, which enables authorities to take control of bus networks where the market is “failing”, is being abused by Nexus, which is actively pursuing Quality Contracts for Tyne & Wear.

“They’re simply saying ‘we just want your profits, that’s what we’re after, because we can’t fund ourselves and our cost base’,” he says. “Isn’t that akin to theft? You can’t invest against that background.”

There are differences of opinion on the issue of re-regulation among ALBUM members. Ralph Roberts, managing director of Greenock-based McGill’s says franchising can work, but he agrees with Colson that it could be unfair on smaller operators (see comment right). Meanwhile, Ian Mack, managing director of West Midlands-based The Green Bus, supports re-regulation (see story below), believing it to be “the only way forward”.

This year’s ALBUM conference, A Sustainable Future for Bus Travel, will be hosted by local authority-owned Network Warrington at Carden Park Hotel near Chester. The speakers include Sir Brian Souter, chairman of Stagecoach, a fierce and long-standing critics of re-regulation. Addressing a meeting of the Omnibus Society in January, he said: “I think we’re in a very dangerous place just now. I am deeply concerned.”

 

The Album Report 2015

The ALBUM report 2015 accompanies the latest edition of Passenger Transport. This 28-page publication features exclusive interviews with Ben Colson, chairman of ALBUM, and Damian Graham, managing director of council-owned bus company Network Warrington.

To view it online, CLICK HERE.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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