Stormont transport minister is stripping us of our basic right: to run a simple bus business
Minister Nichola Mallon has moved to put the nail in the coffin of private sector investment in Northern Ireland public transport.
Just over two years ago, this newspaper carried a piece entitled: NI wants fast, express buses – yet commuters are still left waiting.
The piece highlighted the plight of the company I work for, Hannon Coach, in our attempts to provide an express coach network linking main towns and cities across Northern Ireland with Belfast, and the obstruction we had faced over the previous two years at the hands of the Department for Infrastructure
At the time, we had already been through a successful judicial review and been awarded costs. As part of its settlement, the Department committed to give determinations on our applications by the end of March 2018.
Instead, the Department simply showed contempt for that settlement through delays and excuses until exactly one year on, in February 2019, the Department played the ‘No Minister in Stormont’ joker card.
So, at the time we were left with a choice between further time-consuming and expensive legal action or to await the arrival of a Minister and hope for sanity to prevail. When Minister Mallon was appointed in January 2020, we had high hopes. We made repeated requests to secure a meeting, but all requests were declined.
Just before Easter this year, so almost four years after submitting our initial application, the Department wrote to us to inform us that minister Mallon had refused all six of our express service applications.
To add insult to injury, at the same time the department notified the industry that in May the previous year, minister Mallon had taken a decision, without consulting or informing the industry, to change the process and rules regarding all commercial bus permit applications.
The changes will ensure that, not only will it be impossible for any operator to have any reasonable chance of being successful in any future application similar to ours, but a new renewal process makes it highly likely that current highly valued services operated by private operators will see renewal applications refused.
For many in the industry the actions of minister Mallon were the last straw.
Earlier this month, Hannon Coach, together with two other leading operators and the CEO of Bus and Coach NI, the trade body of Northern Ireland’s leading bus and coach operators, appeared before the Committee for Infrastructure to provide evidence of what we believe to be systematic denial of the legitimate right of private operators to provide public transport services.
We called on the committee to invite the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct an inquiry into what we believe to be the unfair practices of the Department in terms of denying access to the market to new entrants, delivering a hostile environment for the very few private operators still providing services, and a distortion of the market in favour of its own internal operator – Translink.
The message from minister Mallon would appear to be “Public transport good, Translink better!”
> Owen McLaughlin is group marketing manager for Hannon Coach
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