John Hibbs, R.I.P.


Markets and Morality
John Hibbs was an IEA author whose work led to a radical change in policy in the somewhat unfashionable field of bus transport. However, whilst there may be several academics and policy advisors working in the field of rail transport for every person studying and advising on bus transport, John would always eagerly point out that the latter was as economically important as the former.

John was born in Birmingham but spent his childhood in Brightlingsea. His father died just ten days after John’s birth, so John was brought up by his mother, supported by two aunts and his grandmother. He was educated first locally, followed by Colchester Royal Grammar School, and then boarded at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire.

By the time he was 18, John was a committed pacifist, following his father, a Congregationalist minister, and satisfied the war-time tribunal for registration as a conscientious objector. He spent the time he would otherwise have been on National Service working in agriculture and in hospitals.

After some further periods of hospital working, including at the Radcliffe in Oxford, he took a BCom (Social Studies) degree of Birmingham University at Woodbrooke, one of the Quaker Selly Oak Colleges. The turning point in his career was securing a second-year placement with the bus and coach company, Premier Travel in Cambridge. That placement supported John’s dissertation, The place of the motor bus in the rural economy, and led to a job in 1950 as Personal Assistant to the Managing Director.

After leaving the company, John was fortunate to gain the position of Rees Jeffreys Research Student at the London School of Economics. His MSc research project examined the economics of the road transport licensing system, and became the foundation of much of his later career.

After two years as a transport consultant and technical journalist, together with a fellow Omnibus Society colleague, Bert Davidson, he acquired Corona Coaches in Acton. Within a few years things got difficult. Rural car travel was increasing rapidly, leading to less need for public buses; the licensing framework stifled innovation; and credit for fuel became hard to come by. So, with great sadness, John sold the business and after a while joined British Railways in 1961.

John undertook a wide range of projects but, frustrated at intransigent attitudes, and having acquired a unique set of experiences across road and rail, John took up the challenge of creating the first UK undergraduate course in Transport Studies at what was then City of London College (now London Metropolitan University). By the time he left in 1973, he had been promoted to Principal Lecturer, and established a national reputation. His next career move took him to Birmingham Polytechnic and, in due course, he became Director of Transport Studies. He gained his own PhD in 1983 with the thesis: A comparative study of the licensing and control of public road passenger transport in selected overseas countries. The title of Professor of Transport Management was conferred in 1986.

John became a significant national figure as an academic and held several offices in the Chartered Institute of Transport (as it then was) from 1951 onwards. Sadly he passed away without knowing of his election as President of the Omnibus Society. He also played important roles writing for the Adam Smith Institute and Institute of Economic Affairs – writing that was to prove very influential.

John Hibbs was an eloquent speaker and wrote with precision and flair. He was a prolific writer of papers and authored several books. He was particularly renowned for combining clear intellectual analysis with practical experience of the industry; challenging conventional thought; presenting argument with passion and conviction.

John thus had a strong influence, arguably more than anyone in the UK, on establishing Transport Studies as a credible and important academic subject and as a highly professional area, economically and socially. He effectively created the subject of transport economics, and encouraged a whole new cadre of transport specialists. For his outstanding services to transport education, John was appointed OBE in 1987. Indeed, one of his students, Oliver Knipping, is also an IEA author, co-authoring with Richard Wellings, Which Road Ahead – Government or Market?

It was little wonder that John’s expertise was sought by policy makers on the national stage. As a long-time Liberal, he was transport advisor to the Party. Moreover, his views were influential in formulating the 1980 Transport Act, which was the first move to reinstate the market. Through discussions with the then Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, the 1985 Transport Act and its White Paper precursor owe much to John’s arguments; the bus industry was reformed, bringing in a commercial structure, removing the road service licence system and weakening monopoly. There were some aspects of the Act of which John did not approve. In particular, he regretted that the Act did not actually achieve his desire for full deregulation, which was the popular (and political) misdescription of the actual reform. Later, John advised John Major and his government on railway privatisation. In the event, privatisation proceeded in a manner contrary to John’s advice: wheel was separated from rail, leading to what John regarded as ‘the mess we have today’. John was the proud owner of a copy of the 1985 Transport Act signed by Nicholas Ridley.

John continued teaching postgraduate students at Aston University into his 80s. He continuously challenged the establishment – the road and rail transport industry and government regulators – with careful and critical analysis and research. Not everyone found his arguments to their liking or conviction; but John’s standing and powerful exposition, his integrity and mastery of the economics and practice, and the respect with which he was held, made for compelling listening and attention. John is almost certainly right that the 1985 Act prevented the ‘strange suicide of the British bus industry’ – traffic fell from 42 per cent to 6 per cent of the transport market between 1952 and the beginning of the 21st century, but that fall came to an end with the greater flexibility and more effective marketing techniques that were possible after the 1985 Act. Before the Act, many local authorities were still running routes determined by post-World War I timetables. He was a strong critic of those voices (still prominent today) who wished to re-regulate the industry believing it would usher in the days of decline again. John described the idea of franchising as ‘competition for a monopoly’ and incompatible with liberalisation and the best possible passenger service.

John Alfred Blyth Hibbs passed away on 7 November 2014. He is survived by children Mike, Alison and Robin from his first marriage to Constance, and five step-children Krysia, Cyrrhian, David, Enistine and Tim from his second marriage to Paddy.

John Hibbs’ IEA monographs can be downloaded here.

2 thoughts on “John Hibbs, R.I.P.”

  1. Posted 19/12/2014 at 17:46 | Permalink

    John was a wonderful enthusiast for bus transport and one of the very few transport economists who had an interest in buses. He recognised the flexibility that buses offer transport consumers and was very effective in pressing for deregulation. He also saw through the arguments of those who, at the first sign of any transitional problems in deregulated markets, wanted to reregulate them. My sympathy goes to all his family – they can be sure that he had a significant and benign influence on UK transport policy.

    Colin Robinson, former IEA Editorial Director

  2. Posted 29/01/2015 at 16:03 | Permalink

    Frankly the proof that Hibbs was wrong can be shown by the fact that bus ridership in London has not followed the rest of the country.
    I never knew him and of course my sympathy goes to his family but the policies which flowed from his pen has caused immeasurable damage setting in train numerous privatisations by people who had no understanding of the subject.
    His influence on transport policy wrecked the bus network and subsequently ruined our railways through the structures that were adopted.

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