Should CPT abandon its steady National Trust-style lobbying and move towards a more vigorous and confrontational approach?

 

The excellent work done by Claire Haigh for Greener Journeys has demonstrated very clearly the huge economic significance of the bus

 

All change. This version of the Confederation of Passenger Transport terminates here.

At least, it will do if the ‘Big Five’ in the industry get their way. For after a decade or more of stability and quiet progress, significant changes are under way. Already chief executive Simon Posner and chairman Ian Morgan have departed, clearing the way for a new approach.

The pressure for change seems to have come from Arriva and Stagecoach in particular, with the other three acquiescing. There has been a feeling that the voice of the sector has not been heard loudly enough where it matters, and that at a time of tight margins and a declining ridership, the cost base of the CPT needed to be brought down. In other words, the Big Five have decided they want more impact for less input.

More for less is always an attractive business proposition in any sector at any time, but can it be achieved here?

In terms of profile, an organisation that wants to sway government policy has to decide where to place itself on the spectrum. In the environmental world, for example, we have Greenpeace at one end, and the National Trust at the other.

The former is very much in your face and on the edge of the law, often annoying, even infuriating government ministers and civil servants alike, with its high profile, media-friendly stunts. But sometimes it does force through change, usually by creating a mass public mood in favour of the objective it is promoting.

The latter, notwithstanding the unwelcome recent spotlight on their fossil fuel links appears to the public to be a rather sleepy conservative outfit, no doubt doing a worthy job with a safe pair of hands but never setting the world on fire. Yet over the years it has cultivated back channels to government and is generally liked and respected by ministers and civil servants alike, not least because it is seen as reliable and non-threatening. The downside, of course, is that it can if necessary be safely ignored.

Under Messrs Posner and Morgan, the CPT has been much more National Trust, and like that august body, its quiet diplomacy undoubtedly has successes it can point to. Most recently, its behind-the-scenes lobbying on the Bus Services Act was effective in improving that particular piece of legislation. And certainly when I was buses minister, it was standard practice, whenever anything significant to do with buses was being discussed, to ascertain and report to me the views of the CPT before any decisions were taken. These views were always given serious weight.

On the other hand, nobody can argue that the recent budget, for instance, was in any way helpful to the bus industry. In that budget, motorists saw fuel duty frozen for the ninth year running, £28.8bn pledged for new roads, and the inevitability of a whole lot more in the future as a result of the reinstatement of road tax hypothecation, dormant since 1938. Rail users saw more money for East-West Rail and the Northern Powerhouse, and those aged 26-30 will benefit from a third off fares with a new digital railcard. Air passengers were given a freeze on air passenger duty and more investment in e-passport gates.

And bus users? There was £90m to trial new models of smart transport including on-demand buses.

“Mr deputy speaker,” the chancellor added, “I think in our day we used to call them taxis.”

The budget is one of the great set pieces of the parliamentary year, and unlike most government announcements, its date is set well in advance and made public. It is one of the great lobbying opportunities in the calendar. That so little each year refers to buses might well be regarded as an industry failure, especially with a chancellor who is a former transport secretary and therefore is more familiar with bus matters than most.

Anybody who believes there is an easy solution to this might find themselves disappointed

So those in the industry who argue that the voice of the bus is not cutting through enough are right. But anybody who believes there is an easy solution to this might find themselves disappointed.

The CPT consultation document is big on this area, calling for “effective and dynamic communication with government, policy formers and decision makers.” To achieve this, the new chief executive when appointed will also bear the title of director of external relations, and a new External Relations Unit will be formed, along with a new committee to oversee this area.

Some look with envy at the rail industry and contrast the ability of the Rail Delivery Group to achieve column inches with the seeming inability of CPT to match that. But it would be dangerous to draw simplistic conclusions from this.

Leaving aside the fact that much of the coverage generated by the RDG has hardly been positive and therefore of questionable benefit, a basic truth is that politicians and journalists alike are much more interested in trains than buses because they themselves generally use trains and do not use buses.

If you are an opposition politician, getting your stories into the media is crucial if you are to influence government, so as shadow transport secretary in the last years of the Brown government, I gave this a high priority. I found that placing stories about cars and trains was easy, but getting stories about buses and coaches into the papers was hard work indeed. It is not impossible, however, with a bit of imagination, and the widespread coverage given recently to Britain’s most scenic bus route shows what can be done.

If you are a government politician, you face your own hurdles. As buses minister, I was prevented from making a major statement on buses to the Commons, not by the transport secretary who supported me, but by the then leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, who told me rather grandly that the government did not allocate scarce time in the chamber to statements about buses.

This patronising view betrays a misplaced attitude that buses are not very important when of course the truth is that they are the most heavily used form of public transport, and the excellent work done by Claire Haigh for Greener Journeys has demonstrated very clearly the huge economic significance of the bus.

As minister, I was enthused by Claire’s work and circulated it amongst colleagues in other departments, such as Work and Pensions, who ought to have been interested, but sadly most were not.

So it will be an uphill struggle to achieve the sort of influence CPT wants to see with central government, and it could be argued that the softly-softly approach of CPT over recent years has been as effective as any other course of action might have been.

In 2018 however, circumstances have changed, and not for the better. Margins are tight, passenger numbers are down, congestion is getting worse, and the Ubers of this world are posing an existential threat. And I have not even mentioned Brexit. The need to engage and influence central government is greater than ever.

Yet there is no indication that government outside the DfT is interested in listening to the industry. Indeed if anything, buses are now further from the centre of the radar screen than before.

Given all this, a robust approach is certainly appropriate and while it is not sensible to irritate the government gratuitously, there is frankly a case for moving along the spectrum some way from the National Trust end towards, though well short of, the Greenpeace end.

We should be prepared to publicly embarrass the government with real stories, inconvenient truths and facts, when it is necessary to do s

In other words, if gentle persuasion behind the scenes is not working, a more public campaigning approach should be adopted, even if this directly challenges government policy. We should be prepared to publicly embarrass the government with real stories, inconvenient truths and facts, when it is necessary to do so. The industry needs strong voices who understand both the industry and government, and are adept at using the media to good effect.

It would, however, be a mistake to concentrate solely on central government or national media outlets. Many of the decisions that impact on the industry are taken at local level, whether it is the introduction of Clean Air Zones, the removal of bus lanes, or small scale road improvements to tackle local congestion.

Messrs Posner and Morgan understood this and rightly saw engaging with local communities (and that meant not just local politicians) as key, especially now that we are in the era of elected mayors. It is good that the original reform proposals to curtail the CPT’s regional structure have been reconsidered in the latest consultation.

So can this extra emphasis on external communications be delivered within a structure that is leaner and cheaper? The answer is probably yes, but there is clearly some nervousness amongst the smaller companies that they could be squeezed out and the CPT services they value either diminished or even removed.

Ian Morgan is particularly alive to this. He told me: “The bus industry needs a vibrant, healthy independent sector. Independent operators tend to take a longer-term view than the big groups as the latter are driven by their investors who expect capital growth and dividends in the short and medium term.”

The independents are “in the main more comfortable with lower returns when times are tough, and tend to be more fleet of foot and better engaged with the local communities they serve.”

The good news is that the consultation process appears to have been a productive one. If as seems likely the final product will be one that boosts the external voice of the industry while maintaining the regional structure and freezing membership fees, then that is a package that most people will welcome.

We will in any case soon know. The consultation period ends on November 30. Time will tell whether the industry is turning the tide or simply managing decline.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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