Khan pledges ‘London Bus Co’

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has pledged to create a publicly-owned London to compete for contracts as they expire.

In the build-up to the 2 May Mayoral elections, the Mayor has fallen into line with Labour policy, which is to clear the way to the creation of more municipal bus companies and introduce bus franchising more widely, along the lines of Mayor Andy Burnham’s Greater Manchester Bee Network.

Labelling the policy his ‘next-generation transport programme,’ Khan said the policy would depend on his new company being able to deliver value but that, as contracts expire, to bid for them. He said this would offer ‘better value for money, consistency and service to all Londoners and visitors to the city, and would also provide stability and certainty if operators were to fail during their existing contracts.’

Labour’s enthusiasm for running bus networks and, now, bus companies shows no sign of abating, possibly buoyed by Andy Burnham’s success in getting the Bee Network up and running.

North of the English border, there’s more disquiet about franchising, with the owners of McGill’s starting publicly that they see this as theft of a network they have built with their own money, and are fighting to resist franchising proposals. My suspicion is that any bus company playing the long game will see Labour’s enthusiasm to turn back the clock wane as the bills come in.

For many operators, there’s no objection in principle to handing the headache of network organisation to local authorities and simply running buses to a contract; it’s not as if this isn’t already commonplace throughout the country with supported services. But even at this low level of public subsidy, the system is creaking, and councils are scrabbling in the purse to pay for uneconomic services.

The theory franchising clings to is that profit from viable routes and shareholder dividends can be ploughed into ‘essential’ bus services, and that councils have some magical insight into knowing where buses should run. They really need to examine the annual accounts of our bus companies. The reality is that margins are slim, and that bus companies work relentlessly to improve and add to services, driven by the hope of better margins.

If public money is to be used to prop up bus networks – and it will be, in huge quantities – councils might like to reflect that the same money could be used more permanently to create bus priority and attract (and force) people out of cars on to more sustainable transport. It’s only by building the bus passenger base and changing habits that anything self-sustaining can be created.

Every one of the senior managers of bus companies I have met is driven, of course, to create a profit from running bus services, but their core aim is identical that of the Labour Party; to get as many people as possible on to buses. Indeed, in terms of behaving like public servants, many show more promise than some politicians…

Mark Williams

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