I wouldn’t call it gamekeeper turned poacher, but it is certainly a journey from being Buses Minister – setting the rules and determining national budgets – through to Chair of Bus Users UK – representing passenger interests – to my new role as operator, Managing Director of The Big Lemon in Brighton and Hove.
And yet for me, the philosophy that underpins each role is the same: to deliver a good service for the passenger, and in that way to push up the number of journeys made by bus. That in turn helps reduce carbon emissions and boost local economies, precisely the two key objectives I set for the successful Local Sustainable Transport Fund established back in 2010.
I like the bus industry. It is by and large a happy family, and one which delivers a good product, despite the hurdles that can exist. It is customer focussed in a way many industries aren’t, perhaps because it relies on a huge number of people regularly paying small amounts.
The Big Lemon has these plus points and more besides. It is a great little organisation where everyone feels part of the team and believes in the product. It is therefore no surprise that this enthusiasm is infectious, extending out to the public at large, who like the friendly drivers and the freshness of the brand. We have made travelling by The Big Lemon a fun thing to do. Fun rather than functional.
What is also valued, not least by me, is the ethical and environmental approach that is in the DNA of The Big Lemon. Over a decade now, it has shown how doing the right thing can not only be successful in economic terms, but also generate brand loyalty as well.
All the company’s vehicles run on used cooking oil, collected from local restaurants. This not only reduces carbon emissions but doubtless reduces problems for Southern Water – used cooking oil and waste water pipes are not great companions.
Next month, we take delivery of two electric buses. These will be the first such buses to operate in the city, and perhaps, though I stand to be corrected, anywhere in Sussex. At the same time, solar panels are being installed on the roof of our depot, meaning the recharging of the vehicles should be fully from renewable sources. These buses are truly green.
It has become somewhat unfashionable to put the environment centre stage. The dismissal of measures to tackle environmental challenges by the former chancellor George Osborne as “green crap”, and the arrival of climate change deniers in the White House, has weakened the political imperative for action.
Yet all the scientific analysis shows climate change is only too real and getting more marked by the year. With the transport sector accounting for around a quarter of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions, it would be irresponsible for the bus industry not to play its part.
Here in Brighton and Hove, the biggest player is of course the Go-Ahead subsidiary Brighton and Hove Buses. We also have services provided by a local independent, Compass.
Both these companies are good operators, and I welcome that. The result of their actions, and ours, has been to buck the national trend, and see passenger numbers rising across the city. We may be in competition at one level but is in our shared interest to provide a reliable product for the bus user. The companies have done that, helped by a consistently supportive approach over the years from the city council, irrespective of political control.
So we now have an effective multi-operator ticketing system, and other shared platforms too. For instance Bus Times, the free timetable guide produced by Brighton and Hove Buses, also includes full information relating to all Big Lemon and Compass registered routes.
And we have a common agenda in tackling the barriers to bus travel, for example the congestion on our roads, or the need for particular bus priority measures.
But in this mix, The Big Lemon has a unique approach, being a social enterprise, suffused with fun, and underpinned by ethical and environmental policies others may find too challenging, but which help rather than hinder our success. It is a model we now want to export to other parts of the country.
I am immensely pleased to be joining an organisation that I believe in and that is going places. The future is bright, the future is lemon.