What does Brexit mean for buses? Part 2: seeking the positives

This Latest Thinking article is an abridged version of Neill Birch’s paper to the UK Bus Summit on 9 February.  For the first instalment, please visit www.systra.co.uk/index.php/news-items/latest-thinking.

Brexit will raise some challenges for bus operators, but what about the upside – is there one?

The UK will be free to unburden itself of a great deal of EU regulation governing bus operations. While it is unlikely that the government would want to undercut the EU in minimum safety conditions (the last thing the industry wants or needs is a race to the bottom),  onerous EU regulation of tendering processes and the administration of public funds to service providers, for example, is ripe for serious review.

Currently the tendering processes are cumbersome and expensive. This poses a disadvantage to smaller operators who can’t afford a dedicated department to handle the task.  It also makes it more difficult for government to react to good practice and innovation by directing investment more reactively to reward success and encourage imagination and experimentation. A lengthy, over-bureaucratised tendering process is good for lawyers but costs consumers more than they know.

Escape from EU regulation does offer opportunities for the sector and is not just the myth that some ‘Remainers’ paint it as. That’s the half-full way of looking at it. If it is done thoughtfully, we should see some real gains that won’t be too slow in arriving. But there is a long way to go and the immigration question casts a large and dark shadow.

With the pending triggering of Article 50, Brexit for buses still doesn’t mean much more than, well, ‘Brexit for Buses’. We must make sure that the people at the wheel of the negotiations understand very clearly what it is that we need if bus services are going to survive and flourish beyond the pulling of that trigger.

Lighter touch procurement and agile local transport authorities could be a winning formula, especially if reduced contributions to EU budgets are recycled into support for key public services.  Local authorities should be setting out what they need to receive from the public finance ‘Brexit Bonanza’.

Rejuvenating local bus networks can be very successful – our work in the Republic of Ireland (https://www.systra.co.uk/index.php/services/passenger-transport/passenger-transport-projects/96-transition-to-competitive-tendering-in-ireland) underlines that, with national bus passengers up 7% in the regional cities which have benefitted from our network reviews, with the new network in Galway experiencing double-digit percentage growth (12%).  At present, although part of the EU, Ireland has not yet implemented EU regulations on public procurement of bus services, leaving it with more flexibility to agree changes and financial support packages for bus services. 

But EU regulations are now being piloted, and it will be interesting as we work with the National Transport Authority to see what impact increased EU bureaucracy has on passenger growth in Ireland – will it offer a glimpse of how a more flexible procurement approach had been underpinning growth we would be envious of achieving in the UK?

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