Monday, 22 July 2013

Quality Contracts - A Step Closer to London Style?

Some Interesting news comes out of the North East of England, where the seemingly never-ending saga of Quality Contracts for the area has taken a new twist, with Transport Authority Nexus threatening an almighty meltdown if they don’t take control of the buses, London-style.
We’d all like better buses. Our capital City London is often held up as an example of how an effective bus network can operate. All things being equal, we’d like buses to be like London everywhere.
But everything, of course, isn’t equal.
For a start, London’s transport is expensive to provide. There is more money thrown at the London bus network by far than anywhere else in the country. You do indeed “get what you pay for”, but it’s a real political hot potato. Since London had a Mayor, London has seen a transformation in its bus provision. The capital is unique in so many ways, and a discussion on how deregulation might or might not have worked in the City (or indeed whether it has worked or not elsewhere) would be never-ending.
Here’s an example. Why not create “Transport for Birmingham” in the same vein as “Transport for London”?
For a start we don’t have an all-encompassing Mayor in the West Midlands. Instead we have very distinct areas. Would the 7 Districts across the conurbation agree on everything? Even if Birmingham went alone, would we end up with services terminating at the border (as they did many years ago) because “TfB” is just that? i.e. not “Transport for the wider area”?
Would our elected representatives pledge the kind of taxpayers’ money afforded to those in London to create a similar network?
And what of areas where the network thrives and wins awards, such as Nottingham, which has no threat of a Quality Contract? How is that achieved? And, simplistically, if Nottingham can do it, why can’t anywhere?
This isn’t an anti-Quality Contract rant. I’m as curious on the sidelines as any observer to see what might happen should one ever come to fruition. But the latest comments coming out of the North East are, to me, a tad confusing.
Nexus threatens a huge amount of cuts unless it gets its hands on the network. Scrapping the cash behind all 255 of its school bus services, 200 subsidised services facing the axe, 330 jobs to go and various other deep cuts are forecast if things stay the same.
Two issues spring to mind.
One, if Nexus, as an Integrated Transport Authority, are facing such draconian measures in the coming years and feel the need to address them by introducing a Quality Contract, what of the other similar ITA areas? For example, does Centro face similar pressures? There has been no smell of QCs in the West Midlands - only partnership agreements that, on the face of it, will bring large benefits to West Midlands bus users.
Two, is the North East a “failing” area for buses? I’m no expert on the area, but I’ve been for a few days twice in the last five years and it seemed to me to be well served. Passenger Focus reports that customer satisfaction is high, and, to be honest, I’ve seen far worse areas across the UK.
So it begs the question, how political is this motive?
We all want better bus services, and if the good Councillors of the North East feel that a Quality Contract is the way to achieve it, they have the mechanism, in law, to make that happen. We’ll all be watching with interest if it does.
Passengers, of course, won’t be in the slightest bit interested, unless the fares go up (supposedly admitted by Nexus that some might) or reliability is affected. Will the North East get more policed bus lanes if a QC is introduced, for example?
In ten years time, will we look back at the first Quality Contract (should it happen) and say it was a good move that brought more investment and a settled network to the North East? Or will we rue the removal of innovation and witness a bus network at the mercy of funding cuts more directly?
It is also interesting to keep an eye on the rhetoric coming out of the Labour Party HQ as we start to approach the long run in to the next General Election. More of this kind of thing seems to be on the menu of the current opposition. Future transport policy post-election will be very interesting indeed.
I’m sure this discussion, like the one on deregulation itself, will run and run.....

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