Commentary on how a tragedy in Coventry raises questions about local accountability
Today’s impact of austerity: Cornwall proposes major jobs cuts in response to £77m shortfall
Today’s Cambridgeshire & Peterborough concern: Call for urgent review of combined authority after chief departure
Today’s big dilemma: ‘Is it ever legitimate for council officers to thwart political will?’
This is another column about people being held accountable for what it said on the side of a bus. But on this occasion I am not writing about the Brexiteers’ battle bus.
I am writing about two buses on this occasion.
One is a hazy, nostalgic image of a red single-decker, which is the composite memory of all the buses from my Warwickshire childhood, proudly adorned with the name of their company “Midland Red”.
And the other is the bus which crashed into a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Coventry nearly three years ago, killing two people, having been driven by a driver with a track record of crashes. The safety of his driving had previously been called into question, he had been working a 70-hour week and was subsequently diagnosed as having dementia. The name on the side of this bus was “Stagecoach”.
A jury at Birmingham Crown Court decided yesterday that bus driver Kailash Chander, aged 80, the man involved in the accident, was driving dangerously. However, it was a trial of the facts – he was judged unfit to plead or stand trial.
The bus company involved has pleaded guilty to health and safety law breaches. It faces a fine and sentencing.
A spokesman for the firm in question said: “None of us at our company will ever forget the terrible events of 3 October 2015. We are deeply sorry for the heartache of those affected, particularly the families of Rowan Fitzgerald and Dora Hancox [the people, aged seven and 76 respectively, who died].
“We have made it our continuing priority to work very closely with the authorities to help fully understand and learn detailed lessons from what has happened. The court hearing has been an important part of that process. We intend to comment further at the end of the case after the court has made its decision.”
The name of the company the spokesperson was representing? Midland Red (South) Ltd.
For those unfamiliar with the history of bus operators in the Coventry and Warwickshire area, the historic firm Midland Red was branded “Stagecoach Midland Red” after being bought by the Scottish bus giant in 1993. Wikipedia tells us the company rebranded all of its routes as merely “Stagecoach” as far back as 2000.
LGC is curious about all questions relating to local accountability, including that involving local transport operators. They are, after all, significant partners of councils and perform a key function in relation to local mobility and economic growth. But councils have long complained that the local bus sector overall operates in firms’ own narrow commercial interests rather than contributing to a sustainable and integrated local transport system.
The Coventry incident raises further questions of accountability for local buses. Why was the spokesman not representing the company whose name was plastered over the side of the Coventry bus, the company recognisable to the residents of the city as the bus operator? Stagecoach owns Midland Red (South) and we received our quote from the spokesman after contacting Stagecoach through its website.
Midland Red (South) Ltd is the legal entity that has been involved in the court proceedings. It is it which holds the operator’s licence to run buses and it is it which has pleaded guilty to two health and safety offences. It will be sentenced after a hearing in late November.
Nevertheless, it does raise questions about accountability. If Stagecoach is in effect the company taking the decisions that indirectly resulted in Mr Chander being permitted to drive buses, then it should be its widely-known name which should be attached to the bad publicity surrounding the case, not that of a bus company locally considered defunct (even if it lives on as a legal entity).
Conversely, if Stagecoach has a sufficiently devolved structure that means it really is the management of its local subsidiaries that call the shots then surely the bus should be painted not in that ubiquitous white, orange, red and blue livery seen in so many areas, but in a classic red and bear the name “Midland Red”. In that case, of course Midland Red (South) should be held responsible.
An industry insider points out that it is common for large bus companies to own subsidiaries which are separate legal entitities, as is the case in Coventry. Thus the Stagecoach-owned Midland Red (South) Ltd trades as Stagecoach Midlands.
The company failed to respond to our request for any press releases featuring positive stories relating to the Midland Red (South) name.
The BBC, Sky News, ITV and The Sun all carried reports describing the operator of the Coventry bus as Midland Red (South). The Coventry Telegraph, with its greater knowledge of local transport history, said it was Stagecoach.
Notably, a statement from Rowan’s family said: “It is clear that both Kailash Chander and the management of Stagecoach Midlands are both fully responsible for the catastrophic event.”
We wait to see what the firm will say after sentencing. It faces questions about how a driver who, the court heard, had four crashes in the previous three years and yet was allowed to stay at the wheel. Mr Chander had retired aged 65 but worked on a casual basis for the subsequent 12 years.
The BBC reported how the company had installed a ‘spy-in-the-cab’ system to monitor breaking, acceleration and speeding which resulted in Mr Chander receiving eight warning letters. He was referred to the company’s driving school seven months before the crash. This reported that a journey with him was “uncomfortable and erratic” and said he would not have passed an initial training driving test.
Nevertheless, Mr Chander was allowed to continue driving. He struggled to punch a ticket in the moments running up to the crash and then confused the accelerator and brake, resulting in the fatal error.
LGC appreciates that things sometimes go wrong. Companies (like councils) and their employees make mistakes – and the bigger the company, the more likely it is that one part of its operations will make an error. They need to learn from these to prevent them from occurring again.
But it is also important that companies are held accountable. Those in positions of authority need to hold their hands up and accept the scrutiny that goes with responsibility, like a director of children’s services in the event of a serious case review.
No doubt Stagecoach’s senior management are genuinely remorseful for what happened in Coventry. However, the company’s apologies and sympathy would be more powerful if they came from Stagecoach, not some obscure (except to local transport historians) “legal entity”.
Councils are accountable for their local services (and indeed they’re often held accountable by local populations for services that they don’t run). Their local partners, including those in the private sector, should also be demonstrably accountable for their services, even if they do not face the same democratic scrutiny at the ballot box. This is especially true if they are in effect local monopolies performing an essential service, as is the case with many bus operators.
Stagecoach could learn much from councils about responsibility and accountability. It would be a welcome development if a Stagecoach senior manager faces the cameras after the sentencing, not one from Midland Red (South).
Nick Golding, editor