HE’S one of Britain’s best-loved businessmen with a love of the high life, a head for business and a seemingly doomed fascination with high altitude ballooning shenanigans.
But now Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson has been accused of peddling hot air of a different variety – after branding government workers not “hungry” enough to be successful.
The self-made millionaire’s playful swipe came as he talked about his plans to seize control of the lucrative East Coast rail franchise.
But critics last night rounded on the 62-year-old, with transport campaigners and union officials accusing him of going off the rails with his latest comments.
Branson’s pickle came as he visited Edinburgh on Monday to officially launch a Virgin Atlantic domestic air route.
He said: “If you just work for the government, you don’t get people hungrily trying to make a real difference.”
Talking about the amount of cash injected into the East Coast line, he said: “We can absolutely do an awful lot better than the current management team on the East Coast. East Coast has stagnated.”
Sir Richard added: “The feedback we get is that East Coast passengers would like to see a change. We have years of experience in building companies and in how to get people working for us really motivated and steamed up.
But his sales pitch has hit a bum note with David Spaven, the former chairman of sustainable transport campaign group Transform Scotland.
He warned if the franchise for the East Coast mainline from Edinburgh to London ended up in the hands of a business such as Virgin, it would be a major blow for taxpayers.
He said: “The issue of whether government bodies are hungry enough is nonsense. At the time British Rail was privatised, it was by a number of measures the most efficient rail system in Europe.
“The irony is that the actual degree of interference and control by government is actually far greater than it was because the franchisers are being micro- managed by the Department for Transport. There’s more bureaucracy now than there was when the railway was in the public sector.”
Union officials were similarly amused by the comments.
One Edinburgh-based member of the Public and Commercial Services Union simply laughed when Sir Richard’s remarks were put to her.
Unison chiefs have branded the idea that private workers do a better job “a nonsense”.
One said: “The legacy of the last 30 years has proved that privatisation is disastrous for public system.”
The existing East Coast trains are run by the DFT’s arms-length company, Directly Operated Railways.
That arrangement has returned more than £600m to the DFT in premium payments and profits over the past three years – a level of payments Sir Richard said he could not promise to match if Virgin won the franchise.
However, the franchise, which is set to be awarded next year, has long been coveted by the Virgin boss, who claims his company could provide “massively” better value for taxpayers than the existing state-run East Coast.
East Coast will be in private hands by February 2015 under Government plans.
The route has been run in the public sector since 2009 when the global recession caused National Express to pull out.
IS RICHARD BRANSON RIGHT?
By Malcolm Duck, chair of the Edinburgh Restaurants Association
I would agree with Sir Richard’s comments. There is less red tape in the private sector and it cuts things down time-wise. The problem with the public sector is all the red tape and bureaucracy, plus the fact that different agencies within the same organisations can be working at cross-purposes and not sharing information. The best way forward is when the private sector leads and the public sector supports. I also agree that within the private sector there appears to be more people with a drive to get things done.
By Tam Waterson, chairman of the Unison health committee
To say only people in private firms can run a railway properly as opposed to nationalised industries is nonsense – though coming on the back of the tax of the public sector from the Tory government it doesn’t surprise me that this is now being said. The last 30 years have proved that privatisation is disastrous for public systems. The rise in rail fairs we’ve seen over the last 30 years because of previous privatisations has been a disaster. Look what happened when we privatised the banks – another great success story.