13 Days Remaining

Monday 16th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Private bus firms’ creative excuses for not lowering their prices would be laughable if they weren’t so scandalous, writes Neil Clark

Invariably the excuse used for these year-on-year above-inflation increases has been “increased fuel costs.” The price of petrol keeps going up so we have unfortunately got to “revise” our fares, the bus companies tell us.

But what happens when petrol prices fall? It’s the start of 2015 and fuel prices are the lowest they have been for six years. One garage in Birmingham offered petrol at 99.7p a litre earlier this month. So is it time for some cuts in Britain’s bus fares, already the highest in Europe? No, not a bit of it. Fares are still going up across the country, despite the significant fall in fuel costs.

When we hear some of the reasons for the latest increases, it’s hard to keep a straight face.

“Over the past 12 months, road works and congestion have had a major impact on the costs of running our services and extra resources have been needed to try and maintain punctuality and reliability in the face of trying circumstances. As such, on January 25 the prices of many products will increase,” the Oxford Bus Company, part of the Go-Ahead group, informed its passengers.

Could it be that the Go-Ahead group are short of a few bob? I don’t think so. In its full-year results for 2014, Go-Ahead reported “good progress towards bus operating profit target of £100 million by 2015-16” and that profit before tax and exceptional items had increased by 25.4 per cent to £79.1m. No doubt profits will be increasing again due to the latest price hikes.

In Leicester, fares went up by an average of 10p in January.

“As with other businesses, we constantly incur increased costs which

need to be met and this fare change was budgeted to compensate for these as well as delivering plans for business improvements,” said Andy Culpin, marketing manager for First, which recorded a £44.4m operating profit on its bus services in 2014.

Meanwhile in Manchester we’re told that the companies who run buses there, First and Stagecoach, have no plans to cut fares in the light of falling petrol prices.

“Almost all of our fuel requirement in the current 2014-15 financial year is already fixed at a level that is sig

nificantly higher than the current market price, which has dropped considerably in recent months. That means we get virtually no benefit from recent falls in the price of oil,” says Stagecoach Manchester managing director Christopher Bowles. Stagecoach incidentally posted pre-tax profits of £98.3m in the six months to the end of October 2014.

The bus companies are on to a pretty good number, aren‘t they? When the price of fuel drops they either raise prices, citing some other reason like “road works and congestion” and the need to deliver “plans for business improvements” — or say that they can’t cut fares because they’ve fixed their purchase of fuel “at a level that is significantly higher than the current market price.” But if the price of fuel goes up then it’s a case of: “Sorry but we have to revise your fares because of increased fuel costs.”

What makes the situation even more scandalous is the huge subsidies that the private bus companies receive from the taxpayer — they got £2.19 billion from the public purse in 2012-13 at a time of official “austerity.”

Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton Graham Stringer has accused the bus companies in Manchester of “exploiting people.” Too right they are. The exploitation was made possible by the Thatcher government’s privatisation and deregulation of the bus industry in the mid 1980s and won’t end until we stop transferring huge subsidies to private companies who then have the temerity to rip us off again when we come to pay our fares.

There is no better illustration of how far democracy has been on the retreat in Britain over the past 30 years than the issue of public ownership.

Privatisation has never been so unpopular, with opinion polls showing sizeable majorities in favour of the renationalisation of our railways, the utilities and the water industry in England.

Yet most of our political elite, including the Labour front bench, remains committed to a greater or lesser extent to the neoliberal economic model introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 — one which has privatisation and deregulation at its core.

The big challenge public ownership campaigners have is not convincing the general public that privatisation is one almighty rip-off — the vast majority of people already know that only too well — but applying enough pressure on our politicians to change course and start renationalising.

But how can that be done when there are so many powerful vested interests opposed to public ownership?

In my last column I outlined a way in which we can put parliamentary candidates on the spot before May’s general election.

We need to ask the Westminster wannabees four important questions on public ownership, making it clear that the answers given to these questions will determine whether or not we vote for them. The four questions are:

  • Do you support the renationalisation of Britain’s railways?
  • Do you support the renationalisation of our bus services?
  • Do you support renationalisation of the energy sector, and in the case of England, water too?
  • Do you support a publicly owned NHS and oppose all privatisation of health services and other public services?

To these very important questions we need to add a fifth.

Earlier this month I was giving a talk at a public meeting in Yeovil organised by the Yeovil and District Trades Council, entitled The Great Privatisation Swindle — the case for public ownership.

After I had discussed the Campaign for Public Ownership (CPO) “four questions” plan, a comrade in the audience made an excellent point.

The four questions are all well and good, but we also need to ask the candidates whether they would support public ownership in the next Parliament, even if their party fails to officially endorse it.

So the CPO’s four questions have now become five. Our aim is to make sure we know exactly where the parliamentary candidates stand on this issue, and that they’ll hold to their positions if elected to Parliament.

It‘s very easy to spout waffle about believing in “greater social justice” and “public services that serve the public,” but we now need clear answers about privatisation and public ownership from those who wish to represent us.

Neil Clark is the director of the Campaign for Public Ownership. Follow the campaign on Twitter @PublicOwnership. You can follow Neil Clark on Twitter @NeilClark66