Hammond’s world of numbers

Philip Hammond parachutes in

Philip Hammond is the equivalent of a particularly able finance director, parachuted in to take over what he sees as a failing company – a company perilously close to administration. He’s no romantic like his equally able predecessor, Lord Adonis, but he is just as focussed. You know where you are with Hammond.  Mainly because he keeps telling you. Telling you where his thinking has got to, what he’s going to focus on next, and what he wants to achieve. While he’s helpfully clear on where he’s at – he does listen too. He will adjust his mental spreadsheets (if not his wider worldview) if your arguments are persuasive. However it better be a good argument – with the figures to back it up. Bluster and blather and you could find yourself skewered.

So six months into Hammond’s tenure at DfT where have we got to?

Now the CSR is out of the way, Hammond will focus next on rail reform. Bus policy’s turn will come half way through 2011. Once the Competition Commission has confirmed (expected early 2011) that there’s, er, an issue about monopolies in the bus market (who knew!), the interesting bit begins when they start to consider potential remedies. Their conclusions in Summer 2011 will give Hammond the springboard he wants to look at all the associated issues around the bus powers in the 2008 Local Transport Act, as well as the options around BSOG reform and the wider bus subsidy regime.

Cold hard numbers are the order of the day at DfT

Cash-wise PTEs know roughly where we are on capital spending. Predictably public spending on local transport has been hit harder than London or national rail. But at least we’ve still got capital budgets. There were some realistic scenarios where it could have been wiped out altogether for a year or too. However within capital spending the block of funding for smaller transport schemes (including bus priority, bus stations and so on) got hit hardest. Word is that collectively (by which I mean lobby groups, local government and the industry) failed to do a good enough job of collecting the evidence of the benefits of these kind of schemes to persuade Hammond and the Treasury. We need to do a better job in future as in Hammond’s world it’s all about the cold hard numbers.

Revenue funding is harder to call because our funding depends on the wider local government settlement. That will pit old people’s homes against young people’s concessions and local libraries against local bus services. The kind of decisions that most people wouldn’t want to make. Although it seems some more rural local authorities needed no encouragement to signal that they are pulling out of public transport – leaving the rural poor stranded. In our areas – where the bus matters more – the shape of the bus network will ultimately be determined by four factors. What budgets we retain for supported services (about fifteen per cent of the network at present), how our economies respond to the coalition’s shock treatment, the extent to which concessionary travel is adequately funded and the impact of BSOG cuts. Draw your own conclusions.

Reasons to be cheerful?

The bus - a cause celebre - who'd have thought it?

How BSOG has become a cuts cause celebre. I would never have believed that something as arcane as Bus Service Operators Grant is now merrily tripping off the tongues of MPs as a prime example of something worth saving. The cross-sector alliance (from CPT to CPRE)  that sprang up so rapidly in its defence was also remarkable. Better still the pro-BSOG campaign worked despite the best efforts of some of the more hysterical high priests of the sacred cause of maintaining the ideological purity of bus deregulation. Loss of BSOG, and the consequent decimation of bus networks (and the lives of the poor who depend on them), seemed to be a price worth paying for these bubble-think zealots. With friends like these…

So a 20% cut isn’t great but I’m convinced it would have been much worse if there hadn’t been such a clamour around saving it. The campaign also showed that bus policy is no longer a political free fire zone where you can get away with anything -and the media and MPs won’t notice. That in itself is some kind of cause for optimism.

Jonathan Bray

This article was first published in Coach and Bus Week

Young people’s bus travel – the beginnings of a conversation

The barriers between young people and bus operators are coming down

The relationship between bus operators and young passengers has often been, shall we say, strained. Young people’s grievances about bus driver attitudes, bus service availability and fares are frequently aired and rightly so – like all passengers they deserve a good service.

However, we hear far less frequently about the issues and difficulties bus drivers and operators face in providing a service that meets the demands of young people whilst balancing the needs of all passengers and also turning a profit.

In particular, young people themselves are often unaware of these constraints and struggle with understanding the idiosyncrasies of a system where, for example, the same journey can cost more in one direction than the other. Or where the age at which you pay adult fares varies from place to place. Or where there’s no bus service from the out of town cinema complex late at night. Surely those things are easy to fix?

Sadly not, but we can’t blame young people for trying. What’s needed is a dialogue between young people and the transport sector to promote understanding on both sides.  We should applaud the optimism and ideas of young people but also ensure that they are able to make workable suggestions and have realistic expectations of what can be achieved and how quickly.

Promoting this kind of conversation was one of the aims of a recent workshop convened by the cross-sector ‘Taking forward travel and transport for children and young people’ group – of which pteg is a member alongside the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), the Community Transport Association, local and central government representatives and young people’s agencies.

The workshop, held at the offices of CPT, bought together almost 50 stakeholders, including bus operators, young people, government departments and transport authorities, to discuss bus travel and formulate workable solutions for how it could be made better.

We heard from young people who were passionate about improving the bus services that they rely on to get around. The fact that young people chose cheaper bus fares as one of the UK Youth Parliament’s three campaigning priorities for 2009/10 shows the strength of feeling in this area.

Meanwhile, young people were able to hear views from the other side of the fence as bus operators, local authorities and central government put forward the opportunities and challenges as they saw them. All parties got together in mixed workshops to thrash out ideas, solutions and barriers. We saw the beginnings of a national level conversation between the two sides, with both taking the time to listen and understand the other’s point of view.

One of the findings from the day was that young people wanted to engage more effectively with bus operators and transport authorities, armed with a better understanding of the context in which they operate. This insight would enable them to devise workable proposals for change rather than ‘shopping lists’ filled with demands that must inevitably be toned down, with all the disappointment this entails.

At the same time, it emerged that the transport sector is frequently left confused by the workings of the youth sector. They were unsure how to reach young people that they could consult with locally and nationally on a consistent and ongoing basis. Many were unaware, for example that their local Member of Youth Parliament (MYP) could provide a direct link to local, county and national level contacts (visit http://www.ukyouthparliament.org.uk/ for more details). The event provided an opportunity to meet MYPs as well as representatives from other bodies such as the National Children’s Bureau and the British Youth Council – hopefully some valuable and lasting connections were forged along the way.

The Taking Forward Transport group are committed to ensuring that the conversation continues between young people and the transport sector as we look at how the ideas from the event can be put into action. Particular areas of focus will be how we can work together towards a simpler, more consistent and transparent approach to child fares and how we can better collate and share all the many excellent examples of good practice that came to light during the workshop.

This article began by suggesting that young people are not always aware of the constraints transport providers face. It is also the case that they, and the wider community, are not always aware of the good work bus operators and transport authorities do in improving the experience of bus travel for young people. This too should form part of any well balanced national dialogue. Let’s keep the conversation flowing.

Rebecca Handley

This article first appeared in Coach and Bus Week.