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Evidence suggests a lot more effort is needed to make our transport system truly viable

By John Simpson

Published 28/04/2015

People are still snubbing public transport to drive into work every day
People are still snubbing public transport to drive into work every day

In the shadow of an enhanced public debate about how Translink is being run, and in anticipation of another one-day strike, the Comptroller and Auditor General last week published a report generally supportive of the performance of Translink and its parent department. An interesting coincidence.

The Comptroller published a number of indicators for Northern Ireland railways, Metrobus and Ulsterbus which all show that, in comparison with other operators in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, there are no large disadvantages for Northern Ireland travellers. However, that conclusion gives no assurance that, with considerable public funding, the public transport services are actually good value for money.

On closer reading that conclusion would be questionable.

In a broad criticism, the Audit Office concludes "the objectives established for public transport in the various strategy documents are not being measured or managed as comprehensively as possible". (para.17)

Implicit to the Audit Office analysis is an over-riding objective that public transport should be judged by the degree of success, or failure, in efforts to reduce the use of the private car.

There is an assumption that modal shift between the car and public transport is a critical operational objective. In addition, the contentious linkage is made that investment in roads has been faster than that for public transport as if that, in itself, is hostile to public transport. Perhaps account should be taken of the mutual benefit for both cars and public transport from road improvements.

Compared with Scotland and England, people in Northern Ireland are more likely to use a car to travel to work, than a bus or train. And 82% of commuters use a car - only 7% use the bus or train. In addition, 11% either walk, cycle, or live at their workplace. The 82% are being disadvantaged on the contentious theory that car usage is too excessive.

The official policies are to discourage the use of the car to reduce congestion and maintain lower carbon emissions.

The recent evidence is that personal choice by travellers is still pointing towards the attractions of the car. Whether that choice is irrational or selfish is not open to scrutiny by the policy makers. Policy is that car travel should be deterred, if necessary by enhancing the inconvenience of parking in an urban centre.

The car parking problem is mainly, but not only, a Belfast question. The report confirms that official Belfast policy is to reduce the availability of long-stay parking, both privately provided and on-street. Belfast has 13,708 available car parking spaces.

For the 82% of commuters who use cars, there is a tension to be resolved. If city centre parking is to be discouraged, are the transport planners prepared to cope with a displacement effect that encourages employers to become suburban-based and spread the problems of congestion in car parks?

The evidence collected by the Audit Office reveals that the use of public transport is developing differentially. Travel by train has increased dramatically in the last decade: passenger journeys have doubled. Travel by Metrobus, in Belfast, has increased by a third. However, travel by Ulsterbus has shown a 12% decrease. In a related trend, the proportion of fare-paying passengers is growing more slowly than the total as an increasing number of passengers are entitled to use concessionary travel.

These passenger statistics point to further policy questions. Is travel by train now over-subsidised? Are concession fares adequately regulated to avoid excessive peak demand?

The Audit Office has opened the door to a much more demanding examination of better-focused policies for public transport. Questions on the scale of current and capital subsidies are not within the report. What is now needed is a more demanding exercise asking not only about effective services but also about efficiency. There are difficult choices to make which have not been adequately tested by this report.

Company report: Manderley Food Group Ltd

Manderley Food Group is an English-registered company headquartered in Corby.

However, the main shareholders are the Hutchinson family in Tandragee who have built the group from an earlier local company, Tayto, which produces and distributes potato crisps and snack foods. Today’s larger group is the result of the addition of extensive acquisitions by the original shareholders who bought a number of production units in England.

The financial results for 2013-14 reflect a further improvement on the results over the last three years. In 2013-14, annual turnover continued to increase and reached a new peak of £179m.

The trading results have recovered steadily after a major allowance for impairment and amortisation in 2011 which created trading losses. Since then operating profits have improved. In this note, the pre-tax profits in 2012-13 have been stated excluding an unusual additional adjustment of £10m as a consequence of a surplus on an insurance settlement, followed by a further surplus of £160,000 in 2013-14.

The directors assess the crisps and snacks market as continuing to be challenging because of significant competition in the retail sector and continuing pressure on customers. They also draw attention to the continuing risk of volatility of raw material prices. The group is confident that it has adequate resources to continue in operational existence in the foreseeable future. The group manages exposure to commodity price risks by contracting forward on certain key raw material purchases or by buying at spot prices, whichever is the most appropriate.

The value of shareholders’ funds at the year-end was just under £54m: a 6% increase on a year earlier but still below the estimate of £59m in mid-2012..

 Employment in the group rose to an average of 1,419, an increase of 3% on a year earlier but, although recovering, was nearly 200 fewer employees than in 2009.

In 2012, the business had a suspicious fire at a factory in Sirhowy Valley Foods in south Wales. The factory has been rebuilt at group HQ in Corby and the financial implications of that, and the insurance claim, have been factored into this report.

Belfast Telegraph

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