In the third part of his series on influencing the influencers, Roger French implores operators to move heaven and earth to get the local MP into the yard, to dispel their fantasy view of what bus and coach travel really is
If you’ve got over the shock of reading my last two columns suggesting you invest time in attending relevant meetings of your local council to get to know and ultimately influence the key people who make decisions affecting your business, guess what?… I’m about to suggest even more meet-ups with influential people. This time I’m talking MPs.
MPs are important because they wield considerable influence both in Government and locally. They come in all shapes, sizes and shades of political hue. Their views on buses and coaches generally don’t vary much according to their political beliefs. There are some extreme cases who support nationalising and regulating everything that smacks of a public transport service but generally most MPs want a decent bus service that means their email inbox won’t be filled with constituents complaining of its shortcomings.
Most MPs don’t have a clue what goes into providing a decent bus service or the important role coaches play in keeping people on the move and local economies thriving, including tourism. This is all the more reason why it’s important operators take the time to brief and educate our democratic representatives.
It’s not often legislation directly impacting bus and coach operators is debated in Parliament. Despite the key role we play, our industry goes about its business largely ‘under the radar’ but when we do take centre stage – as happened with last year’s Buses Bill – it’s interesting to see just how few MPs attend the debates and, of those who do, how few are able to make informed constructive contributions to the debate. The same situation applies in the House of Lords with the esteemed Lords and Baronesses.
‘Most MPs don’t have a clue what goes into providing a decent bus service or the important role coaches play in keeping people on the move and local economies thriving, including tourism’
We must take some of the responsibility for this lack of engagement and, over the next few years, do something about it. We’ve never been closer to the possibility of having one of the most left-wing Governments for decades, and it’ll be no use complaining about unwelcome proposals to shake up the industry if we’ve not done enough groundwork of informing and persuading beforehand.
It’s actually easier to get in touch with an MP than a local councillor. Although they’re based at Westminster during the week while Parliament is sitting, they all have regular times back in their constituencies to meet local people either in advertised surgeries or on privately-arranged visits. If you’re a significant local employer in an area (and the chances are, you are) it’s certainly worth inviting the MP who’s constituency your operational premises are based to visit and have a look round and, importantly, to meet some staff (their constituents and voters) and discuss current issues with you.
Those of you who are members of the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) might think that it’s their job, and that’s what you pay your membership fees for, so CPT can lobby and influence on your behalf. Well, that’s true but only to a certain extent. There’s no doubt CPT do an excellent job and have all the right contacts with Ministers in Government and civil servants in the Department for Transport. Much time is spent ‘behind the scenes’ quietly lobbying and informing these key Government contacts about what makes the bus and coach sectors tick. Successful lobbying is not about who shouts the loudest, but who effectively gets their point across. And CPT certainly does that, and in a very professional and respected way.
For example, last month Stephen Hammond MP – a friend of the industry since his time as a Shadow Transport Minister in the mid 2000s and as Under Secretary of State for Transport between 2012 and 2014 – hosted a session at Westminster where MPs were invited to drop-in and discuss, with senior representatives from the industry organised by CPT, how buses and coaches can help provide a solution to improving local air quality.
This is just the kind of thing CPT is good at facilitating but, as they emphasise, it has to be complimented by locally-based operators also contacting MPs in their local constituencies to make the same points. By doing this you can give a perfect ‘real world’ flavour to the points that need to be put across about how buses and coaches really are the solution to society’s growing and worrying air quality challenge as well as many other issues.
‘MPs actually quite relish the idea of a field visit to a local employer. They like the publicity it can bring’
CPT can’t be in touch with all 650 MPs and it wouldn’t be appropriate even if they could. You can’t beat having local business people, well experienced of the sharp end of running a business, talking directly to Members of Parliament and their researchers.
MPs actually quite relish the idea of a field visit to a local employer. They like the publicity it can bring. A nice photo in front of a bus and coach garage with a gleaming vehicle in the background, a few staff (constituents) next to a smiling MP. Just the job. Don’t ever under-estimate the influence you can bring to bear.
Because it was handy for MPs to travel down on the train to Brighton in under an hour from Westminster, Brighton & Hove Buses often hosted visits by newly-appointed Secretaries of State, Ministers and Shadow Ministers in the Transport portfolio. I got the impression they were always pleased to get out of the DfT and Parliament for a few hours. I’d always ensure we had a bus ready for them to board as they arrived and took them on a tour of the impressive bus lanes and priority measures as well as the blackspots for hold-ups and congestion, so they’d get a flavour of what makes for a good public transport offer and what it’s really like at the ‘sharp end’.
On one occasion, the late Charles Kennedy arrived on the train to attend a Lib Dem conference at the Brighton Centre. Norman Baker (MP for neighbouring Lewes) thought it would be a good idea for he and I to meet Charles and accompanying him on a short bus ride from the station down to Churchill Square from where it’s a short walk to the Brighton Centre. The journey takes no more than three or four minutes if everything is working well, but on this occasion the traffic was gridlocked and it took for ever. The positive was there was plenty of time to talk with Charles and Norman as the bus crawled along at a snail’s pace, and he could certainly appreciate the need for good traffic flow; the negative was it delayed his appearance at the Conference somewhat!
A group of MPs it’s well worth informing and influencing are those members of the Transport Select Committee. The new panel of MPs who make up this Committee was approved last month and there are some new faces along with some old timers. If you operate buses and coaches in St Austell/Newquay, Plymouth, Bexhill/Battle, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Crewe/Nantwich, Cleethorpes, Greenock or South Antrim it’s vital you make contact with your MP as, although the Committee has no executive powers, its members can be hugely influential in their work as scrutineers and Enquiry Reporting.
I’ve ignored the long-standing Committee member, Graham Stringer from Manchester’s Blackley and Broughton as he’s well briefed on his views and Nottingham based Lilian Greenwood as Committee Chair, as she too is well versed in transport issues from her time as Shadow Minister and is a great asset.
Let’s try and get as many of the 650 to be a great asset too.