The Solace of Committees

Well, I think we can all agree that – no matter your views on the actual subject – The Brexit Show has been compelling viewing, but personally I felt it ‘jumped the shark’ last night. (TV industry reference to the episode of Happy Days which indicated the writers had run out of ideas).

I decided to take a break from it this morning and tuned in instead to the Transport Select Committee, starring one of my favourite Chairs – Lilian Greenwood.

This morning’s session was taking evidence on the issue of the Health of the Bus Market (in England, outside London).  Perfect.

One of the enjoyable things about Committees is that – in stark contrast to the Brexit Show – they often reveal parliamentary democracy at its best, with politicians from different parties working together to achieve a common goal.

It’s also interesting on a psychological level, seeing the way in which the members’ characters are revealed in the different approaches to questioning, and the way in which this can be used by a Committee with an experienced Chair to tease more out of nervous or recalcitrant witnesses. 

Even if you don’t know the subject of a Committee session beforehand, it is often possible to tell what the main purpose of it is – whether to illuminate or excoriate, or if it will be one of those ‘good cop/bad cop’ sessions, simply on the basis of which members have turned up.

Even though this particular Committee session was very much genuinely consultative in nature, the entertainingly sardonic Graham Stringer was in attendance and the session was focused on the subject of funding, so there was a good chance there would be at least one uncomfortable moment for the witnesses.

Today’s ‘Stringer zinger’ was to preface his first question with the remark “Well, you’re not the first set of witnesses to show a decent appetite for taxpayers money.” Ouch.

Overall, though, the witnesses – from North East Combined Authority and Local Government Association, Blackpool Transport, First Bus, and TAS Partnership – will rightly consider this to have been a good straight-forward session, with plenty of opportunity to get their key messages across.

For those intending to watch the video recording of the session later, I won’t spoil it for you, but here are some of the interesting facts from this morning:

·    42% of bus service funding (in England) is from the public purse in one form or another

·   Services need to operate at around 9-11% profitability to be sustainable, but the average for services in the English shires is 7.3%

·   The UK Government has been talking about changing BSOG (Bus Service Operator Grants) for some 9 years now, but has yet to do so

·   There is an irony in the fact that, as one of the primary means by which to tackle congestion, one of the main drags on bus operator costs and efficiencies is congestion

·   For bus enthusiasts – Blackpool buses have leather seats, wood-effect flooring, free Wi-Fi and USB ports

From a Scottish point of view, one of the other enjoyable things about watching Westminster Committees is the frequency with which Scotland is referenced as an example of best practice, or just better practice, so it was a bit of a surprise when Giles Fearnley (First Bus) observed that when Scotland changed the BSOG method of reimbursement from being based on fuel consumed to km operated, it had had ”unintended consequences.”

My smugness level was temporarily restored later when John Godfrey (TAS Partnership) came back to the matter and said that Scotland had indeed changed to a per km operated payment and there was also an incentive for low carbon emission vehicles which is paid at double the rate, which “seems to be a much more straight forward and better targeted system than the current system (in England) related to fuel consumption.”

Giles, however, was not content to let this be the last word on the matter, and the two reached consensus on the observation that the revised Scottish system was good for rural services but not so much for urban ones. OK, so less smug again.

More takes from the witnesses evidence: Funding needs to be more visible, flexible and aggregated, a focus on facilitating the switch to low emission vehicles, capital investment to improve highways, more joint working between highways and transport authorities, and of course everyone in favour of a Bus Strategy, with a good observation from Paul Woods (Local Government Association) – “A bus strategy isn’t just about buses, it’s about how it connects to other modes.” 

All-in-all a good Committee with a knowledgeable panel of witnesses offers a satisfying respite from the ya-boo hubbub of the Chamber, and a reminder of how constructive politics can be. Sometimes.