In a surprise move, 160-vehicle arms-length Plymouth Citybus could be part- or fully-sold by the autumn, leaving just 12 in the municipal sector. This follows a council decision to test the market.
The Conservative leader of Plymouth council said, “Running a bus company is not core council business and we're one of the few councils in the country to still own one.” She also remarked that a sale would only result if there were a sensible offer. It’s unlikely that there will be anything other than a reasonable one given the interest any sale would generate. There are few jewels left and there’s likely to be a frenzy for this one.
Cue a local controversy, with each side lining up to support or denigrate the council. There’ll be talk of profiteering, fares increases, withdrawal of services and poorer staff conditions.
On the other hand, there may be economies of scale and network benefits if Marc Reddy’s First Devon & Cornwall were successful bidders. First already operates some city services, a legacy largely of the pre-1986 Plymouth Joint Services days. And First is a very different animal to the operator that previously expressed an interest in Citybus exactly three years ago. Yet, First’s fares are said to be higher than Citybus’ and First hasn’t invested in vehicles in quite the same way. Conceivably, you could still end up with a Brighton situation. Any First takeover would create a situation not dissimilar to Chester, though Chesterbus & Citybus are so very different.
First will not have any bidding its own way. Stagecoach, for example, would love Citybus and could, like Transdev in Bournemouth, inject new life into it. Except it’s arguable that Citybus doesn’t need new life. It’s well run, understood to be profitable (watch for the next set of accounts, though), and returns a dividend to the city council, while investing in vehicles, leased or otherwise.
Though in view of recent issues in the south west, the thought of Stagecoach versus First would be interesting indeed.