Why Leicester’s “Enhanced Bus Partnership” Undermines Efforts to Prioritise Public Need Rather Than Private Greed

Leicester City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby’s politics are opportunist and conservative, and so when Jeremy Corbyn was the Labour Party leader, Soulsby expended a fair amount of energy trying to oust the socialist leader of his own party.

But following in the wake of the popular support that Corbyn’s socialist policies obtained in the 2017 General Election, for a moment at least, Soulsby felt emboldened to highlight some rhetorical support for left-wing ideas. This was evident when Soulsby echoed Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto promise which had pledged to “support the creation of municipal bus companies that are publicly run for passengers not profit.”

In February 2018 Soulsby thus spoke out in the local press about why “re-municipalising Leicester’s buses” would allow the CIty Council to ensure buses “would run later on into the evening,” and allow the city to ensure that buses “would run in to the housing estates where it was an essential part of linking those estates to the city centre.” He added:

“The privatisation of the buses have also seen prices rise astronomically high so that many people have decided it is cheaper to run a car rather than take the bus into work every day. That isn’t good for the environment and isn’t good for the congestion on the roads.

“What we have seen as a result of the fragmenting is actually a very significant reduction in the quality of the service off the main routes. We used to pride ourselves on having a bus stop every quarter of a mile. You can’t say that today.” (Leicester Mercury, February 9, 2018)

A few days later the two biggest bus companies that continue to dominate Leicester’s bus market, Arriva and First, came out in defence of profiteering at the public’s expense. Nigel Eggleton, managing director for First Leicester, said: “I believe that bus services are better managed by the private sector”. While a spokeswoman for Arriva added: “We believe working in partnership with local authorities is the best way to make bus travel an even more attractive choice and linking people to work, education and employment opportunities throughout Leicester.” (Mercury, February 13, 2018)

And that appeared to be the end of Soulsby fleeting and rather abstract demand for public ownership of buses. There was no campaign launched by Soulsby to help build support for re-municipalising Leicester’s buses, and no response from the City Mayor to the city’s fat-cat bus bosses. Instead, later in the same year the City Council’s “Economic Development, Transport and Tourism Scrutiny Commission” met and endorsed the bus companies favoured means of running our city’s buses. This favoured approach, the so-called “Enhanced Partnership” approach, was now considered by Labour councillors to be a better option than moving in the direction of bus franchising, which although far from democratic, would have allowed for far more control of bus services than the partnership approach.[1] As the minutes of the Council meeting noted:

“The Bus Services Act provides Leicester City Council with ‘toolkit of options’ to use the powers in the Act to influence, negotiate and develop a partnership framework. The task group preferred the ‘Enhanced Partnership’ scheme option as a model for partnership working as this provides the council with a broader range of powers to improve bus services in the city.” (September 8, 2018)

The bus companies first preference for the future of Leicester’s buses thus then became the Labour Party preferred policy, and in mid-2021 when the process of setting up the “Enhanced Partnership” was entering into its final stages, Deputy City Mayor Adam Clarke went to the press extolling the alleged virtues of this new partnership approach which resulted in a Leicester Mercury article with the following make-believe title “City aims to take more control of bus services” (June 28). In response the Leicester Green Party had a great letter published in the paper a few days later which noted that they…

“…were disappointed, but not surprised to read in the paper today that LCC intend to pursue an Enhanced Bus Partnership (EBP) rather than a franchise model as the vision for our future bus and transport model. An EBP will still mean private bus companies set fares, and routes, but with some limited input from councils. Franchising gives councils the powers to set fares, routes, plough profits into loss making routes, and create genuinely integrated transport systems across the city and county.

LCC claim the EBP will ‘see fares cut and services expanded’, but an Enhanced Bus Partnership does not give councils these powers!

Lack of power is something the [City] Mayor [Sir Peter Soulsby] has consistently used as an excuse for our miserable and imploding bus services, blaming bus companies, or the ‘Tory government’ for stripping from councils the powers to run bus services themselves. Yet when he’s given the chance to introduce franchising, he doesn’t?

… The city and county councils seem to have decided to go for schemes which are in danger of being very little more than window dressing…” (Mercury, July 1, 2021)

[1] The Task Group that discussed these issues were all Labour Party councillors and included Councillor Jean Khote (Chair), Councillor Hemant Rae Bhatia (Vice-chair), Councillor Patrick Kitterick, Councillor Rita Patel, Councillor Susan Barton, and Councillor Harshad Bhavsar.

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