22 June 2023
As the deadline for entries in the 2023 competition approaches, Chris Cheek reflects on their purpose and continued importance in the 2020s.
The entries for the 2023 competition for the UK Bus Awards close on 28th July, so firing the starting gun on the process of registering, judging and in many cases mystery shopping the entries in the 27th annual competition. The winners will be announced on 28th November at Troxy, the East London venue that has been home to the awards since 2017.
After the traumatic events of the last three years, it is right for people to wonder whether celebration is appropriate, and whether as an industry we can afford the time and effort to organize such an event. Not surprisingly, as a co-founder of the scheme back in 1996, my answer would be an unequivocal “yes”.
Like now, the mid 1990s were a time of rapid evolution for the bus industry – including aspects that still have powerful echoes today. Then, a decade on from the upheaval of deregulation and privatisation, change was still in the air: ownership was changing rapidly and there was much talk of new legislation. An exhausted Tory government was facing defeat in an upcoming general election, and there were promises of re-regulation and re-nationalisation led by Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary.
Operators were increasing investment levels, and we stood at the dawn of the low-floor bus revolution. Led by pioneers such as Trent Barton, interest was growing in the power of route branding, and in the transformation that could be achieved by focusing on improving customer service standards.
Locally, operators and local authorities were recognising the need to work together to achieve desired outcomes in bus policy – so giving birth to the first Quality Bus Partnerships.
In the mid-1990s, then, the industry was about developing partnerships, future regulatory change and revolutionising the way we delivered the product. Sound familiar?
Back then, all the team helping to launch the awards were agreed: there was a positive story to be told about the efforts by bus companies and local authorities to improve bus service provision. That story could help to change perceptions of the industry, but it was not being told.
All these years later, we’re still fighting the same uphill battle to change public perceptions, something that is particularly difficult in the wake of the Government’s messaging during Covid and continuing stories about bus cuts and staff shortages. The annual awards scheme can help.
It’s impartially judged and mystery travelled, and can introduce words and concepts not normally associated with buses to the public discussion. Words like quality, winning, excellence, getting gold, and so forth. Being judged to be one of if not the best in the country offers a powerful boost to local brand reputations, to local morale amongst frontline staff and management and ultimately, to perceptions of local buses. I can think of no other way of achieving that so simply and effectively.
So the UK Bus Awards (known as the Bus Industry Awards until 2004) were born. In 1996, six awards were presented before an audience of 200 in the City of London – growing and evolving over the years since. In 2022, we presented over 20 awards to before an audience of over 600.
The Award scheme was set up as an industry-wide initiative with three objectives – which we’ve stuck to ever since:
- to provide an opportunity for positive coverage of bus transport in the media (to recognise)
- to incentivise bus companies, local authorities and industry suppliers to adopt best practice (to reward)
- to provide a forum in which best practice would receive wider coverage within the industry (to inspire).
In that first year, we also laid down several key principles, which remain vital to our mission today:
- Independent ownership by a not-for-profit organisation
- Robust and independent judging by experts in their field
- Mystery shopping visits where appropriate to check service delivery on the ground
- Wide and continuous consultation with industry stakeholders to ensure continued development and relevance.
- Extensive PR activities to support and promote the award winners.
In 2023, the industry has an enormous agenda ahead of it – continued recovery from Covid, the transition to Zero Emission Buses, and – perhaps biggest of all – helping to meet the modal shift targets set by the Carbon Budgets to deliver Net Zero.
It’s not going to be easy – but then it never has been. And at the heart of it, the old challenges about changing public perception of buses remain. We believe that our inclusive business model and our proven track record of promoting victory, excellence and gold medal performance means that UK Bus Awards is still uniquely well placed to make a contribution to the battles that lie ahead.
In short, for all sorts of reasons, “Flying the Flag of Excellence in the UK Bus Industry” is as important today as it ever has been.