MP blasts 'cloak of secrecy' over sale of bus company

A DEAL selling Eastbourne Buses is imminent this week as high level talks continue to secure a sale.

As the Herald went to press yesterday (Thursday) Eastbourne Borough Council, which owns 80 per cent of the Birch Road company, and the other shareholder Keolis were expected to sign on the dotted line in a multi-million-pound deal.

It is no secret that two companies submitted bids for the company and were in the running — Stagecoach, which runs services in Hastings, and Go-Ahead, the firm behind Brighton and Hove Buses.

But council chiefs remained tight-lipped this week, refusing to reveal any details quoting commercial sensitivity.

The Herald understands one of the major sticking points in negotiations has been the cost of protecting the pensions of Eastbourne Buses staff which is likely to run in to millions of pounds and will have to be met by the council.

A meeting of Eastbourne Borough Council's decision-making body, the cabinet committee, was held behind closed doors on Tuesday evening and chief executive Martin Ray was given the go-ahead to clinch the deal.

But Eastbourne's MP Nigel Waterson, who has been leading a campaign to save the bus company from being sold on, said he remained unhappy at the secrecy surrounding negotiations.

"My constituents are still in the dark about what is to happen to their local bus company," said Mr Waterson.

"Once a deal is struck, there can be no justification for maintaining this cloak of secrecy. There remain some serious questions which demand answers and these include how much are the operating losses and when will the annual accounts be published?

"What is the size of the pension fund deficit and how are the interests of existing and future pensioners to be absolutely safeguarded? What are the company's other debts, including bank borrowings and any debts owed to Eastbourne Borough Council?

"What is the current valuation of the physical assets of the company, especially the depot? How much will be left for the main shareholders, for example the council taxpayers? What assurances have they sought and achieved on routes and fare levels? Any deal will be measured against the interests of both council taxpayers and customers."

Eastbourne Borough Council is expected to make a decision in the next few days.