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24th September 1971
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

Public transport, politics,

and the grass roots report by Derek Moses

POLITICAL INTERFERENCE with the operation and planning of public transport services has long been regarded by some as the bugbear of those appointed to provide such services, and in recent years this interference has intensified to an alarming degree. It was appropriate, therefore, that politicians should present papers to the first annual conference of the Municipal Passenger Transport Association since its title was changed to the Association of Public Passenger Transport Operators. In reality the conference, held in Blackpool this week, was the 70th annual conference of the Association.

The nub of the political situation as it particularly affected the municipal sector of :he industry was described on Wednesday afternoon by Aid T. A. Harris, chairman of Leicester City transport committee, in the 'ollowing terms: "I believe a definite link an be traced between the intensity of )olitical feeling in a particular town and the )light the local municipal bus undertaking bads itself in.

"In particular I believe that transport :ommittees who have never appreciated the lifference between matters of policy, which are very properly their preserve as :ustodians of a valuable public utility, and natters of management, must shoulder a lot af the blame for the present parlous state of he municipal section of the industry. Worse ;till, history has shown that as an indertaking's fortunes plummet, a :ommittee's inclination to tamper increases. Ills is why I believe that the circumstances which have grown up in Leicester over the aast quarter of a century could well be :opied elsewhere."

Leicester example

Aid Harris's paper was entitled "Public ransport and politics—should they be nixed? Must they be mixed?" He briefly raced the development of road passenger ransport from the beginning of the century, vhen it first came into public ownership in nany towns and cities, and hence under iolitical control, to the present day. The ntention of the 1945 Labour Government o nationalize public transport had placed it irmly into the party political field, he said.

Politics were taken out of the transport :ommittee room at Leicester 25 years ago, kid Harris remarked. While other factors tad influenced the position there was a lefinite link between that decision and the elatively happy situation the undertaking bund itself in today, he claimed.

Despite a difficult period in the past inancial year, the undertaking had made • perating surpluses totalling £805,000 over the past five years. It was debt free, all buses were bought for cash and the undertaking had never received a penny from the rates, he added. In case anyone believed that Leicester had been specially blessed. Aid Harris reminded delegates that when the trams were scrapped in 1949 the undertaking had plunged £600,000 into the red. Nine years later that debt had been cleared.

The manifestation of party politics in a local transport committee took various forms. Aid Harris described some of these, ranging from a mutual suspicion between the chairman and officers to the loss of considerable revenue by holding back necessary fare increases pending local elections, primarily as a political expediency.

In Leicester, the part played by party politics in local government was reduced by sharing, wherever possible, committee chairs and vice-chairs. Thus if the Conservative party held the chair, the Labour party would provide the vice-chairman for that committee. The parties had also come to an agreement that the majority party would not expect to provide the chairman for every council committee and that where the minority party provided the chairman the majority party would provide the vice-chairman. In this way the parties worked together in formulating committee policy and opposition became constructive rather than merely destructive as it so often had been in the past.

Ald Harris then spoke of the relationship between the general managers of municipal undertakings and the chairmen of the transport committees. During a series of lectures which he had delivered to chief officers of local authorities on behalf of the Business Management School at Leicester Polytechnic last year, he had been astonished by the feeling of patient resignation which seemed to dominate relationships between officers and their chairmen. Almost without exception, chief officers seemed to regard their chairmen as the price they had to pay for reaching the top in their chosen profession.

Few oficers had appreciated that with the electorate in a volatile mood many inexperienced elected representatives were taking over as committee chairmen and subconsciously looking to their officers for a lead. The speaker put the following questions to the managers in the audience: "Do you brief your chairman fully?

"Do you draw to his attention articles in the national Press to passages in Hansard which have a bearing on the work of the department and which he probably, through pressure of his everyday activities, will not have picked up himself?

"Do you arrange for him to receive the trade Press?

"If you accompany him to conferences such as this one, do you ensure that he meets people who provide him with valuable background information once he is here?"

This was politics, perhaps not at a very high level but it was grass roots politics which had the greatest bearing on the municipal side of the bus industry. The industry in its present failing state was in no position to be caught in the cross-fire from opposite sides of the council chamber or the committee room, and he believed there was much to learn from the Leicester attitude.

Political control

Aid Harris added that he believed in direct political control of public transport. The dissatisfied user must be able to take his complaint to the man he had voted for and if he was still not satisfied he must have the privilege to express his views through the ballot box. Despite its many imperfections, he was sure that this system was better than any alternative.

The alternative to direct political control was the administration of public transport by a system of Boards similar to the Gas or Electricity Boards. Despite any number of consultative councils or similar bodies, he believed the transport user would experience an increasing 'lack of contact between himself and those who provided his transport if any other system of control was employed.

Also, and this was particularly important, with politicians controlling the destiny of so many oth'er matters which impinged on public transport to a greater or lesser degree, any moves to take public transport away from the politicians would bring about an even more marked lack of co-ordination than had been the case hitherto.

The industry really had a future, and a future which could not be divorced from politics of one sort or another, said Aid Harris.

Rural problem

Other points touched by Aid Harris in his paper included the problems of rural transport, the dilemma of the National Bus Company, the Government's licensing proposals, local government reform, minibuses (which he' dismissed in a sentence as being no solution to the industry's problems), subsidies, urban road construction, and the lessons to be learned from America's mistakes.

Speaking of the Government's latest licensing proposals (CM August 6), Ald Harris had some reservations. In particular he could see real danger to comprehensive transport plans if an unrestricted number of small vehicles such as minibuses were coming right into the heart of city centres from rural areas. "I would have thought that if the Government allows this development, these services should only be brought into urban areas as far as interchange facilities with regular bus services", he stated.

Turning to subsidies, Ald Harris warned that it was now generally accepted that public transport would not be able to finance itself out of the fare box for very much longer. The industry in the United Kingdom had lived out of the fare box longer than in any other country in the world. Instead of being praised for this achievement, its inability to carry on in the future was regarded as a failure.

"We must find a method of subsidy that does not weaken management control and efficiency. I believe we have a considerable responsibility for the depression that is lying over the industry at present by not having informed the elected members of our town and city councils of the changing circumstances and the problems and challenges that lie ahead", he said.


Mr Leslie Huckfield, MP (Nuneaton), addressed the Thursday morning business session of this week's APPTO conference. Mr Huckfield, who described himself as a backbench MP who had always specialized in transport and technology in the House of Commons, said that he spoke as a one-time long-distance lorry driver, paid-up member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and the son of an engine driver.

Though it might seem mere reiteration of a truism, those that made the policies both nationally and locally had a duty to outline the basis for sound planning in the bus industry. He believed that this was done in Barbara Castle's 1968 Transport Act—"a veritable testimony of faith in public transport, and above all a statute which enshrined the mechanism of subsidy powers to ensure continuity".

Mr Huckfield added: "If a busman needed some assurance that somebody in Whitehall or Westminster believed in him, then it was given. I am sorry that the present Government sees fit only to chip away at that assurance. I am sorry too that some local councils don't declare their faith as passionately as they might."

Turning to subsidies, Mr Huckfield said: "I would like to see my party, and I. hope the next Labour Government, go even further and declare itself quite unequivocally in favour of subsidizing public transport. Local councils ought to declare themselves too. Do we believe in the pollution, the noise and the calamitous expense of a full-blooded urban motorway system or the more sane solution of accepting that urban public transport should not be profit-making?"

He wanted to see social-cost benefit studies of routes and systems, and believed that a continued and controlled subsidy policy was die best way of guaranteeing a sure future for the industry. That was what all men in the industry wanted as a basis for good industrial relations. "So how about telling your drivers and conductors your intentions for a better future? If they cannot see beyond further service cuts and more one-man buses, what encouragement have they?"

A major asset in planning the future was a fundamental staff loyalty to the undertaking. In his frequent tussles with Midland Red in his constituency, the platform staff had always presented themselves as jealous guardians of the rights and routes of the company, Mr Huckfield claimed. They too would like to see an improvement in the standard of service offered.

Management lacking?

Mr Huckfield then attacked management in the bus industry; because there was no real equivalent of the manufacturers who forced the pace of re-equipment in the airlines and among computer users, the bus industry might only reach its technological peak well after the traffic peak had passed. "I have yet to witness the competitive emulation of the Boeing Jumbo jet being repeated in the rush for the Leyland National bus_ The bus peak may not pass this way again", he warned.

Delegates might accuse him of ignoring "Park and ride", "Dial-a-bus" and even radio control and claim that great strides had already been . made. He asked about computer routeing and crew rostering, electronic surveillance and monitoring devices. Such failure to exploit the latest aids could not all be blamed on the pittance they might receive in rate support, he declared. "How can your industry guarantee a secure future when you neglect means of technical advance which have so long been on offer?

"Management in the bus industry has not exactly been an innovatory pace-setter", Mr Huckfield continued. "There seems a definite lack of understanding of what advertising and public relations is all about. We all have images these days, and the bus industry can't just buck the system." He quoted "Inter-City" and "High-Speed Gas"—still just trains and gas, but people believed in them more.

He wondered how many bus managements had tried a similar image updating, and how many PTAs could claim to have imprinted on the public mind either their logi-symbol or their route network. "Until these rudimentary steps have been taken, how do you expect your customers, and above all, your staff, to believe in you? In the Seventies and Eighties you cannot count on or calculate your demand curve.

"You are in an extremely competitive market and you must go out, fight for, and even create the traffic—even if it means knocking your rivals. British Rail haven't been afraid—and they are succeeding. You must give to your staff an image of progress, efficiency, thoroughness and style. Give them some pride. It will spread to your passengers", he insisted.

Industrial Relations Act Mr Huckfield then launched into speculation about the possible effects of the Industrial Relations Act for which he could find nothing but "loathing and contempt".

The speaker referred to the decision of the TUC Congress in Blackpool to urge unions not to register under the terms of the Act, and looked at some possible consequences. His starting point, however, was that despite the effects and intentions of the Act, he hoped that industrial relations would continue much on the same constitutional basis as before.

The presence of "free loaders" in any department was something that Mr Huckfield, as a paid-up trade unionist himself, felt very strongly about. Workers who refused to join the union on all sorts of so-called "principled" grounds would be tolerated MOM if they refused to accept the improvements which the unions had fought for and won, he said.

Urging delegates that it was in their interest to have the unions speaking for all their employees, he asked: "Ours is essentially a grass roots movement, with the members coming along to their branch meetings to put their point of view. How many of you know what goes on there?" He added that the meetings represented a voluntary coming together of men keen to improve their wages and conditions.

Mr Huckfield then expressed concern over the "free for all" which the Government's licensing proposals were likely to create, and the competition that busmen would face from private operators. Surely the best way to retain and encourage the support of the staff in these times of changing legislation was to make sure that their undertakings expanded into more tours, excursions, and contract work, provided they had the vehicles.

Speaking of working conditions, and drivers' hours, he believed that "the great wailing and caterwauling" that followed the 1968 Act's reductions did no credit to the industry. "This industry has no right to continue to count on the willingness of its staff to work longer and more difficult hours than other industries", he declared.

"Perhaps the agreement reached last year by the TGWU and Midland Red, with weekend services provided by unionapproved part-time drivers was setting the trend", he suggested. He knew that it had improved services in his constituency.

Finally, Mr Huckfield turned to worker participation in the taking of management decisions. Much had been said and written, but comparatively little had been achieved in practice, he claimed. The bus industry could be a model for the future. With the increasing use of technological equipment with both surveillance and employment aspects, the unions should not only be involved at grass roots level, but in the decision-making too, he concluded.

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