Dai Powell explains why support provided to the bus industry by government during the coronavirus pandemic may have implications for transport policy afterwards

 
Dai Powell

 
It can take the darkest of times to shine a light on what really matters – and there can be no mistaking that these are the darkest of times. Amidst this awful pandemic, we have seen how important our public services are – not simply our NHS and other emergency services, but also our bus services. When all pretence is swept away by the bleak necessity of keeping our society functioning, it has become self-evident that bus services are a vital part of our national infrastructure.

It will come as no surprise to bus operators of every stripe that bus services are vital for our economy, our public services and our way of life. What has been a surprise is the recognition of precisely this by government through the only means that really counts – money. The Department for Transport’s unprecedented support has provided a range of measures with a view to maintaining 50% or so of the current network – acting as a lifeline for communities and operators both. Conversations on the funding needed to safely provide a fuller network under social distancing will work on a similar basis.

An effect of this intervention has been to establish two important principles. First, that there is a notional minimum – a baseline network – that our society requires in order to function

An effect of this intervention has been to establish two important principles. First, that there is a notional minimum – a baseline network – that our society requires in order to function. Second, that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that this network is available. It is worth exploring the implications of these principles as if they were formal policy – rather than its current formulation as a ‘best-guess-in-a-hurry’ aimed at preventing a systemic collapse.

I believe that a baseline network could create a new fundamental deal between operators, communities and the state. It may even be a way past our fractured and somewhat fractious debates on franchising. This would involve an articulation of the basic level of services needed for society to operate. The baseline would be defined by central government, commissioned by local government and delivered by operators. The government would be expected to pay for this baseline network, and this would replace existing subsidies such as BSOG (Bus Service Operators Grant).

In practice, this might mean that central government sets frequency minimums – for the sake of argument a hamlet might have a minimum of one bus every two hours to the nearest market town, a village one bus per hour to nearest rail head/market town, a travel-to-work corridor might have a half hourly minimum and so on – whatever is necessary for societal resilience. You can foresee a role for community transport in providing some of these minimum services.

On top of the baseline network, operators should have the freedom to innovate and exercise their expertise, increasing frequencies if they can grow patronage, serving new destinations in alternative patterns, and be able to secure the rewards – and risks – of doing so.

There are obvious issues to work through here – mechanisms for competition, ticketing and revenue distribution, preventing unscrupulous operators from front-running their own baseline services for fun and profit and so on. Nevertheless, the core of this idea can and should be explored. One thing that is clear, though, is on fares – if buses are a public utility aimed at ensuring access for key workers, then fares cannot be a barrier to use and must be affordable.

Things that were unthinkable before the crisis are now not only thinkable, but achievable

Right now, as an industry, our focus is on tackling the present crisis – our colleagues all across the county have been providing essential services with professionalism, pride and resilience – and no small amount of courage. And yet, it is not too soon to start thinking about what this all means. Things that were unthinkable before the crisis are now not only thinkable, but achievable. As we move towards better times, maybe the new ways of working that have been necessary to get us through this horrible crisis will prove to have a longer term value that none of us could have imagined at the start.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dai Powell is the chief executive of HCT Group, a large-scale, award-winning social enterprise in the transport industry, operating transport and training services from more than a dozen depots across London, Yorkshire, the southwest, the northwest and the Channel Islands. Dai has been chief executive since 1993, leading the organisation as it has grown by more than a hundredfold – from a small community transport provider into a national social enterprise.

 
Get the latest news delivered to your inbox. CLICK HERE to subscribe to our e-newsletter.