Shock in store for Council Taxpayers

Quality contracts are not as good as claimed, writes John Hibbs in Route One

For some reason the public at large seem less interested in debates about buses than they are about the trains. Yet buses carry twice as many passengers as trains – 4.75 billion a year. And when politicians interfere in the bus industry it is expensive. London spends as much taxpayers’ money on bus subsidies as the whole of the rest of England put together. London’s largesse could soon be inflicted on Yorkshire Council Tax payers.

The story goes back to 2000 when, under pressure from the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG), the Department for Transport made provision for local authorities to impose ‘Quality Contracts’ on bus companies. These allow Local Authorities to control the bus network and its fares. Where Quality Contracts are introduced, they will reverse the key gains of the Transport Act 1985 which stopped the slow death of the British bus industry by liberating it from political control. Bus companies will be progressively strangled with bureaucracy and become servants of politicians instead of their customers.

There is now a real danger that councils will use these powers because central government has made it easier for local authorities to implement Quality Contracts. And the West Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority, formerly West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority (Metro), is being encouraged by its officers to implement them. Metro recently announced “unanimous support for Londonstyle services” where a politically-controlled franchise system already exists. One result in London is that Transport for London (TfL) employed 231 people whose remuneration was over £100,000 last year (08/09) and, whilst bus customer satisfaction scores are a few points higher in London than in West Yorkshire, reliability and punctuality are lower. It seems that the beneficiaries of “London-style services” are the employees of the controlling transport authority.

The cost of buses to the taxpayer in London is also huge. Subsidies have mushroomed from £1 million to over £700 million per year. Even after allowing for the smaller network, if West Yorkshire follows a similar path there is a real risk of triple digit increases in Council Tax. The omens are not good: there are no European examples of quality contract or franchised bus networks which do not involve substantial public funding.

It must be hard to justify the substantial expense, when it is known that a Conservative government, made a manifesto pledge to remove the powers concerned. But those making the decision are not part