Saturday, 28 October 2006

A Dereg Postscript

I hadn’t intended any more on 20 years of deregulation for the time being but I am grateful to those who have posted comments on the five articles.

Referring to the juxtaposition of the “old” and “new” in the picture under Thursday’s post, Matt asks, “When does one mark the 'end' of deregulation?”

Matt’s question is not as insane as it sounds. He continues, “The ideals of deregulation were finished off by the rise of the big groups and change since then has been much less drastic than during 1986-89.”

The first response is to note that from a certain perspective, deregulation as perceived by the late Nicholas Ridley MP, never actually materialised. His vision was of established, small, family-owned independents taking on the big boys. Some examples there may have been but it was never quite as Ridley had envisaged. Another of Ridley’s deregulation dreams (fantasies?) was for every bus driver to own and operate his bus, a little off the mark. Neither he nor others foresaw the formation of the big groups.

Deregulation was, however, responsible for a change of attitudes within the operating industry and, of this, Ridley would’ve approved. As the perhaps careworn rather than scarred Cogidubnus puts it, “the endless restructuring (and the forever present fear of losing our jobs) as we were all slimmed down and (often more than once) sold on down the line... traumatic times if you had a young family…” Indeed, Cogidubnus, they were. And for some continue to be so.

In other words, as deregulation forced the industry into a healthier shape, one able to react to the market in which it now found itself, the casualties were often long-serving and loyal staff whose futures became uncertain or worse. This was the painful reality in all denationalisations at the time. Why should the bus industry be any different?

Returning to Matt’s point, we’d say that deregulation today is still very much alive and well, only it has changed. Sometime between 1992 and 1996, when the larger groups achieved critical mass, deregulation lost its competitiveness. Perhaps this is because the industry’s leaders began focusing on rail. Perhaps they were happy with the less combative and more rewarding expansion by take-over. Or perhaps they were tired of the fight.

Things did settle but there has recently been a spate of competition, but not nearly so much based on price, but on quality; not with life-expired buses but SLFs. Sheffield, Oxford, Liverpool and Bournemouth are all examples.

An anonymous commenter likens the period preceding deregulation to a spiral of decline over which the county councils presided. My recollection was the early 1980s Market Analysis Project-inspired networks were designed to overcome this. Perhaps one reason why they did not was because resources were diverted away from profitable routes “to appease politically motivated supporters on routes where readership was apocryphal”.

Another commenter argues that passengers and frequency on most key corridors are higher under Dereg than 20 years ago. We aren’t sure how true this is over the entire country. But can anyone blame an industry in concentrating resources where numbers are likely to be buoyant, to everyone’s benefit, including councils and PTEs? He argues that the reduction in loss making rural services is a price worth paying – and opens the debate as to whether the bus has any future in a deeply rural, high car owning area.

Matt should have the last word. He argues that “the availability of mid-life buses once patronage plunged in the [deregulated] big cities allowed the small firms to undercut London Buses Limited, allowing fares and conditions to stagnate.” He has a point. The swapping of conventionals for first generation minis may have had the same effect. To what extent has the London industry made up for this stagnation in the last five years?

Matt’s views on “flawed” deregulation sit opposite the anonymous commenter’s views on key corridor growth. The balance highlights the current debate about whether or not deregulation is working on services beyond the key radials.

I am also very grateful to the anonymous commenter who tells us that the ex-Hants & Dorset “Happy Harry” free bus in Thursday's photo was a joint Stagecoach/City of Oxford retaliatory initiative aimed at Harry Blundred’s Devon General operation, to counter Blundred’s Basingstoke proposal. Supremely ironic. I’m glad someone still remembers this particular episode.

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