John Hibbs, architect of bus deregulation, obituary

John Hibbs, who has died aged 89, was known as the architect of bus deregulation in the UK. It was a combination of personal experience and old-style free-market liberalism that led him to the conclusion that the bus industry, largely state-run and highly regulated since the 1930s, was dysfunctional, inefficient and not serving passengers’ needs.

 

He was convinced that the involvement of the government was wrong and, in various writings for thinktanks such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs, advocated a purely free-market position. These papers proved highly influential and helped ministers to frame the acts that successively deregulated the coach industry in 1980 and, five years later, the bus network outside London.

 

A sentence from his assessment of 10 years of regulation, written in 1997, gives the flavour of his thinking: “Quality control – so long as it is limited to the safety regulations necessary for a fail-dangerous industry like transport – is a constraint upon contestability [ie competition] that must be accepted, though it should not be permitted to encroach too far.” In other words, the availability of services was more important than their quality. He hated subsidy, even cross-subsidy between routes, which helps companies establish a network, as he believed only a free market would provide the right sort of services. It was an extreme point of view about an industry that faced long-term decline as a result of wider car ownership, and his free-market radicalism surprised many of his colleagues.

 

After deregulation, there was a series of bus wars across Britain, with some popular routes becoming overcrowded with old buses driven by small companies. The market has now largely settled down, and is dominated by half a dozen big players. It was not quite what Hibbs had hoped for. His ideal was small-scale capitalism, with bus drivers able to own and operate their own vehicles. This was a notion picked up by Nicholas Ridley, the Conservative transport secretary who pushed through the 1985 Transport Act, which deregulated the buses and broke up the old National Bus Company, and was wont to wander round bus garages asking drivers whether they would like to own their own vehicles.

 

Despite widespread opposition from across much of the political spectrum – even some Conservatives thought the plan was too radical and this ensured London was exempted – and the continued decline in the number of bus passengers, Hibbs maintained that the deregulation was correct, and was angered only by the fact it had not gone far enough. He accepted that passenger numbers had continued to decline, but argued that the rate of decline had fallen. While admitting mistakes were made, such as not preventing predatory activity by firms cherry-picking the best routes, or driving out competitors through bullying tactics (Stagecoach ran free buses to bankrupt the local municipal Darlington bus company), he argued that deregulation had saved the industry from being wiped out.

John Hibbs, transport consultant In writings for thinktanks, John Hibbs advocated a purely free-market approach to the provision of bus services

 

Hibbs came to academia after a somewhat chequered career in the bus industry and, later, a period in the railways. He was born in Birmingham. His father, Leonard, a congregational minister, died 10 days after John’s birth, so he was brought up by his mother, Sylvia, supported by two aunts and his grandmother, in Brightlingsea, Essex. He went to Colchester royal grammar school, and then boarded at Haileybury college, Hertfordshire, before reading social studies at Birmingham University, from which he graduated in 1950.

 

Having worked on the buses during his undergraduate years, he became a partner in a small but long-established bus firm, Corona Coaches, based near Sudbury in Suffolk. It was not a good time to be involved in the rural bus business and the company soon got into difficulties and was taken over by a local rival. Hibbs recognised some of these difficulties had been caused by the advent of mass motorisation, but he also blamed inflexible regulation, which made it difficult to respond quickly to changes in the market. Companies were unable to adjust fares or services without recourse to the bureaucracy of the traffic commissioners and, as he put it later, “managers saw their job as running buses, not seeking traffic”.

 

This practical experience strengthened his view, first expressed in his master’s degree thesis, completed at the London School of Economics in 1954, that the system needed radical restructuring. The experience of running a company had been particularly chastening. He had literally bet his house on the financial success of the company and had to sell it, finding himself homeless and jobless. His wife Constance decamped to Germany and it took him some time to resume his career, finding a job in 1961 in British Railways with the curious title of traffic survey officer for the eastern region. He stayed with BR for six years in a variety of roles, experience that again stood him in good stead when he became an academic.

 

He started teaching at the Workers’ Educational Association and then was offered the opportunity to create Britain’s first undergraduate transport studies course at City of London College (now London Metropolitan University). He later moved to Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) and in 1986 became professor of transport management. He was appointed OBE in 1987.

 

Hibbs was a great lecturer and engaging raconteur, one of those teachers whom students remember all their lives. His lively mind ensured he was still teaching and writing well into his 80s. He undoubtedly changed the British bus industry, which had been run with little regard for passengers’ needs. However, as even he would admit, many mistakes were made and the debate over how much state involvement – if any – there should be in the buses is still raging. Hibbs can claim the credit for having started it.

 

Hibbs is survived by three children, Mike, Alison and Robin, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, and by five stepchildren, Krysia, Cyrrhian, Tim, Enistine, David, from his second marriage, to Paddy, who predeceased him.

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