Councils across West Yorkshire are considering purchasing First Bus services and bringing them into public ownership.
By Harry Douglas-Gratton
It comes after news in May that FirstGroup, the transport company which owns First Bus, would be selling its bus services.
The move has prompted criticism from those who feel the bus services should remain in private hands.
The West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) discussed last week options regarding the sale of First West Yorkshire.
At the meeting Cllr Peter Box, who is the leader of Wakefield Council, said: “I think we should invest, because the potential to benefit the travelling public is tremendous.
“The truth is there are far more people, certainly in our sub-region, who use buses than do trains to get to work so I think it’s a really potentially great investment to make.”
A report released by the WYCA recommends the approval of £200,000 for “technical and legal advice to support the development of bus options.”
Concerns have arisen
Conservative Cllr Barry Anderson, who represents Adel and Wharfedale, said that while he would prefer First Bus to remain privately owned he is “pragmatic” and may accept a WYCA buyout.
“If they cannot find a purchaser for their assets, and if the West Yorkshire Combined Authority agree with me that it’s important to invest in buses, then it may be the only option that’s available to us.
“Would I prefer that it was privately owned, or at least in a partnership agreement? Yes, but if that’s not possible, then we’ve got to look to find out what is possible.”
However Cllr Anderson had concerns about how the WYCA would manage a publicly owned bus service.
“How is it going to be coordinated? Who is going to sit on the board that’s going to look after this? How are we going to deal with Arriva buses? Are we going to give an unfair advantage in terms of pricing structure and various other things?
“If you look at some of the quality of some of the buses that they’ve [First Bus] introduced into this city, I’d like to see them introduced all over the place,” he added. “And that’s the other issue with nationalisation: where are they going to get the capital from? Who’s going to do it?”
What is the history of bus services in the UK?
Bus services in the UK were nationalised by the Labour government under the Transport Act 1947.
By 1968 The British Transport Commission owned nearly all of the bus services in the UK.
However during the 1980s the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher began deregulating and privatising the bus industry.
In 1986 all bus services outside of London and Northern Ireland were deregulated. Services in London were privatised in 1989.
Stewart Harper, Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Leeds North West, agreed with Cllr Anderson that the private sector was better equipped for running the bus services but said that the WYCA still has “a role to play”.
“If you look at the history I don’t think that the public sector runs those things as well as the private sector. I’m not, in principle, in favour of them running the services.
“The combined authority can have a role here if they’re looking at who runs these services. They should incentivise them to run more electric buses, or hybrid buses.
“What the bus companies can do is be very mindful as they’re bringing in new services using electric buses, using hybrid buses, using green fuels.”
First Bus lost £327m in 2018 and this year’s annual loss is approaching £100m.
Following their losses they are set to focus on services in North America.