Green plans to nationalise Bristol buses come under fire
Green Party mayoral candidate Daniella Radice has come under fire for suggesting she would take back Bristol buses into public ownership, with the West of England Bus Operators' Association doubting the plan’s benefit and warning it could lead to higher council tax bills.
Speaking just two-and-a-half-weeks ahead of the mayoral election, Ms Radice laid out her vision of a Bristol where the revenue from buses belongs “to the people of Bristol” and is used to improve local transport.
The Green candidate - an environmental specialist who has worked in the waste industry and for Network Rail – said her party hopes to deliver a joined-up transport scheme for Bristol. Plans include improved local rail links, support for the Bristol metro, an emphasis on cycling and walking provision, and a transport hub at Bristol Temple Meads to simplify connections.
Taking the buses – which were privatised in 1986 under the Thatcher government - back into public ownership forms a key part of that plan, she said: "If we take the buses back into public ownership, the people of Bristol will be back in the driving seat.
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“We pay over £3 million a year to subsidise First buses, yet fares are still extortionate, services run late, and all the profits leak out of the system into shareholders' pockets.”
Ms Radice later amended that figure, claiming £3m is the total subsidy awarded to all bus operators in Bristol.
She added: “The revenue from our buses should belong to the people of Bristol and be used to improve our transport. Through taking back the buses, we can give free travel for under-16s, and, yes, charge a fare of £1.50 on routes within the city."
But the Green candidate’s comments have been criticised by the West of England Bus Operators' Association (WEBOA). Its Chairman John Birch told This is Bristol: “We don’t see there’s any benefit, least of all in terms of the cost of doing it.
“Nobody so far has properly costed such an operation. The figures being bandied around just don’t stand up when you consider the overall operational costs.
“People need to understand what is being proposed to be done with their money.”
He added: “We feel [the plan] is a nonsense. We support many of the Greens’ aspirations in other respects, but in this particular regard we don’t see the benefit. We cannot see where that would involve an improvement in the service.
“The evidence says service reliability has improved dramatically in the last five to six years, as a result of working with the Local Authorities, investing in decent kit and improving staffing levels.
“That’s all been done without the need to get involved in Quality Contracts [Quality Contract Schemes bring local bus services under public control].”
Alan Peters, managing director of Abus Ltd, also criticised the plan: “I don’t think it is economically viable. I don’t think mayoral candidates even begin to understand the economics of the bus industry.
“I don’t believe there is the money in the budget to pay for what Ms Radice wants to do. For me there are more question marks than there are answers.”
Mr Peters also warned taking buses back into public ownership could lead to higher council tax bills. “It would hugely affect council tax bills, and they would take away vehicles from financially viable routes,” he said.
Meanwhile WEBOA, in a letter written earlier this month, said: “Under a Quality Contract the cost of providing buses in Bristol will be borne by each and every local taxpayer. And the risk will no longer be borne by the bus operators, but by the City Council.
“In fact, this means that the risk will be borne by you through your council tax bills. And unlike a partnership, which can start delivering improvements straight away, a Quality Contract is probably three or four years away.”
Meanwhile First said: “There has been much talk about what taking the local bus services back in to public ownership would bring the city of Bristol, but much of the rhetoric misses out a number of the downsides to this – i.e. people promise bus users lower fares but without fully explaining the pros and cons, or the impact it would have on council tax bills.”
Ms Radice disputed suggestions her plan could lead to a rise in council tax bills: “I don’t think that is correct, because if they are running bus services that are making a profit those profits would go back into the bus service,” she said. “The aim is it would be cost neutral”.
David Sidebottom, passenger director at Passenger Focus, an independent public body set up by the Government to protect the interests of Britain's rail and bus passengers, said: “For bus passengers in Bristol the most important thing is not who owns or operates services, but whether they are punctual, frequent, go to the places they want and need them to go to, and are value for money.”
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