06 January 2010

11 minus Ipswich = 10

The last big news story of 2009 was that council-owned Ipswich Buses had decided that it was to sell its municipal undertaking to the Go-Ahead Group. We weren't aware that the business was for sale - and you can bet your bottom dollar that neither did Ipswich Buses' neighbouring operator, and main competitor, First.

The acquisition of Ipswich Buses would have been a key move by First, who provide most rural services in Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as a splattering of urban ones, too. Similar to how Go-Ahead's Wilts & Dorset would have rejoiced at acquiring Bournemouth Transport's Yellowbus operation, when it was sold by the local council in 2004, so too would First for Ipswich Buses.

Perhaps the biggest reason for not following the traditional pattern for the sale of a bus company, i.e. inviting interested parties to place bids, can be demonstrated in Chester, when a bus war of sorts started following council-owned ChesterBus' impending sale being made known. Arriva's initial offer came with strings which the city council there didn't like and so refused to sell. In the mean time Arriva set up competing routes which effectively brought ChesterBus to its knees and the city council chose to sell to First for a sum far lower than that officially offered by Arriva.

However, Ipswich Buses' sale could have been done differently. They could have undertaken a market-testing exercise, as Rossendale did for their same-named undertaking - and so too did Plymouth City Council for its Plymouth Citybus company. The former opted that the time was not right to sell, the latter didn't - selling to Go-Ahead. First, however, chose to set up a small operation in Plymouth, hoping to force the authority's hand, which ultimately failed - they didn't in Rossendale, presumably because that municipal is less of a prize. Clearly, Ipswich Buses' worth would diminish should First set up a competing operation, irrespective of whether the undertaking was to be sold. They did it in Plymouth so why not Ipswich, too?

It could be argued that this is the exact same process Islwyn Borough Transport took when selling their council-owned bus company to Stagecoach - only now Welsh entrepreneur Clayton Jones has signalled that, had he known of the sale, been interested. Ipswich residents have made representations in the local press that they feel let down that at no point were they informed of the decision to sell their local bus company. They rightly worry that service cuts and fare rises will come - and surely they will - but as our contributing writer 'CW' told us recently (he's Anglia-based): "the planned service revisions Go-Ahead will surely make will be nothing compared with those which First would have unleashed on the city".

And of course the local identity will be retained - one for the traditionalists to relish, too.

Remaining council-owned bus companies in the UK (size ordered)
  1. Lothian Buses
  2. Nottingham City Transport
  3. Cardiff Bus
  4. Reading Buses
  5. Blackpool Transport
  6. Warrington Borough Transport
  7. Thamesdown Transport
  8. Rossendale
  9. Newport Buses
  10. Halton Transport