In depth

Picture by Graham Walker

UNDER the Freedom of Information Act, The Courier has obtained a series of confidential emails and other documents written by University staff that relate to the process by which the bus services were procured by the University for this academic year.

On 27th June, the Estates Department stated for the first time that they had “start[ed] contract negotiations” for this academic year. Mid Wales Travel, Lloyds Travel and Arriva all expressed an interest in bidding, and Arriva only submitted their bid on the day of the deadline.

As part of their bid, seen by The Courier, Arriva stated that they did not want a potential subsidy offered by the University – which amounted to £70,000 last year – describing their plans instead as an “entirely new concept in service delivery”. They also demanded that the University never offer the service to any other company without Arriva’s permission – ever. But here there was a fatal contradiction: if the service was to be operated entirely commercially by Arriva with the Uni paying nothing, then what could the University do to stop this? The only way would be to subsidise another operator to offer the same routes. But what right would Arriva have to try and tie the hands of the University in this way? This could only look like Arriva trying to hold the University to ransom.

Arriva later stated in clarification that all they were looking for was an “acknowledgement” that the service was operated commercially, but that they “would not expect the University to seek another operator whom it would pay to effectively cover [their] commercial services”. Although it’s understandable that Arriva would not want competition, it’s not acceptable for them to try and prevent the University from operating or helping with their own bus services – especially when Arriva are so proud of the fact that they are operating on commercial terms. The University refused Arriva’s request.

The staff member responsible for negotiations stated on 3rd August that the University was “interested” in Arriva’s proposal, and that they liked “the limit of financial risk to the University”. In their response to this article, the University have repeated their claim that this would constitute a risk – but exactly where the risk might lie in offering a flat £70,000 subsidy is unclear.

Arriva were so confident that they would be awarded the contract (though of course there is no contract, due to the “commercial” nature of their service) that without having received a formal response from the University they went ahead and registered the services with the Traffic Commissioner, which they are required to do by law to run buses.

A meeting was held on 3rd August between Tim Macy and Nigel Owens from the University’s Estates Department, and Geraint Edwards and Ben Meakin, Chief Executive and President of the Guild respectively. This meeting was not minuted, and recollections differ as to exactly the nature of the discussions. The University contend that those present reached an agreement to go with Arriva – but others state that is was presented as an ultimatum, that they had to take it or leave it.

In their response to us, the University appear to be able to recollect the contents of that meeting with quite a considerable level of detail. However, The Courier submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that would have included any minutes or notes of such a meeting. No such notes or minutes were made available to us.

After Guild President Ben Meakin expressed his shock at the prices in a public statement, they appeared to try to gag him and to persuade him not to make any future statements without letting them know first (Dr. Macy said: “I was surprised to hear that you’d released a statement without running it by us. Can you please make sure you do so in the future?”). The University state that this response was simply an effort to continue joined-up working, and that is was necessary in order to avoid “fallout” from other members of University staff landing on Dr. Macy and Mr. Owens.

Dr. Macy also admitted that the University “knew this would happen” and that the “poor” reaction from students was “as expected”. This simply prompts the question: why did the University allow this to occur? Surely it would have been more advantageous to all involved for the University to have considered negotiation on the matter of the price?

Given the failure to negotiate on the matter of price, the only conclusion that can be drawn from this whole saga is that the University as a whole are either stunningly incompetent or worryingly arrogant. They accepted Arriva’s huge price rise without any complaint that we have seen, they failed to recognise that, although Arriva might not have wanted the subsidy, students simply can’t afford such a massive rise in the price, and the members of staff responsible for dealing with Arriva presented the deal to the panel as an ultimatum.

This trail of emails paints a very revealing picture. Questions must be asked as to why a member of staff whose title is “Space Planning Manager”, and is part of the Estates Department, was allowed to manage a transport contract of such importance to students. It is also unacceptable that the Guild were not part of the initial consultation process, as working more closely would have prevented a situation where conflicting statements were being issued.

All that can be gained from this experience is a hope that lessons can be learned for next year. The University must properly engage with the student body – from the start – when planning its involvement in dealing with transport as a whole, particularly bus services. There should be absolutely no question of impropriety caused by a bus company offering free advertising to the University. Everyone involved must make their best efforts to see that communication is improved and a scandal like this is not allowed to happen again.

Arriva declined to comment