Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Those localist Tories strike again

Big news from the Tories, they have found the answer to climate change. A national school bus service!!

Now, now, pipe down on the back seats, this is a serious policy proposition by Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Chris Grayling announced yesterday that if the Tories win the next general election they will develop a national school bus network, modelled on the yellow school buses that are staple of every American high school show. This allegedly demonstrates the Tories' commitment to green transport . It demonstrates that the Tory front bench is subject to the same ideological incoherence that the libdems are often accused (and it must be said occasionally guilty) of.

While the Conservatives' rhetoric on education has been all setting headteachers free to run schools how they want and empowering local government to deliver for their communities not Westminster. In practice the man in Whitehall is going to be telling LEAs what colour to paint their buses and how much they can charge (£2 a day it turns out).

Another thing. Mr Grayling indicates that he wants this service to be run by social enterprises rather than the big national bus companies. Why? Well politically because being nice to third sector organisations is the flavour of the month, and the Conservatives want to shed the image of being in the pocket of big business (chocolate orange anyone?). But practically it makes little sense. The third sector tend to be good at delivering niche services, and righting market failures. Often where the major capital outlay is human (which they can generally source cheaper than the private sector). Where is a social enterprise going to find the money to buy a whole fleet of buses (yellow) to set up as bus business? The taxpayer, that's where. And why should I fork out to subsidise a competitor to private companies where there is no evidence of market failure?

The only reason why the private sector wouldn't be able to handle school bus runs across the country efficiently (and I was under the impression most of the country already has school buses), is if you made the contracts so big that only a few companies could handle them, and thereby stymie competition. Say by making it a national system run from Whitehall were the drive would be to keep the complexity down to a minimum.

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