The impact of the Tories disastrous decision to deregulate the bus inductry outside London in 1986 continues to haunt us.
Here in Darlington, follwoing the entrance of a small operator trying to cream business from United (now Arriva) triggered a massive over-reaction from the larger company flooding the streets with buses. Darlington became a national cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. The result was that the Municipal bus company DTC was driven out of business by Stagecoach which ran free buses around town until the dirty deed was done, costing the local community over £1 million in lost sales. It was the bleakest period in my political career. The penalty for Stagecoach? - a slap on the wrist from the Office for Fair Trading.
Since then things have settled down, but deregulation continues to fail. Bus operators are free to withdraw from services that serve those most in need of public transport. Up and down the country, towns and villages have been hit as they see their bus services disappear. Little wonder then that bus patronage figures outside London are continuing to slide. Councils feel that they have a gun to their head, and step in to save at least part of the service - here in Darlington our bus subsidies have more than doubled over the past four years. Often we end up paying the same bus companies large subsidies to run on routes they themselves were operating a few weeks previously. At the same time, bus industry profits continue to swell.
In that context, the Government has launched a White Paper Putting Passengers First which seeks to redress the balance between the bus companies and local communities. There's been extensive coverage in the Echo over the last two days, albeit that the front page yesterday was a bit overcooked. This isn't a return to the pre-1986 status quo, nor is it the London franchising model (which works) where passenger numbers are bucking the trend and rising steadily. It is however, a step in the right direction.