Midlothian coach boss fears for industry

A Midlothian coach company boss has highlighted his concerns about the future of the industry due to the conronavirus outbreak shutdown.

Robbie Prentice of Prentice Westwood Ltd.
Robbie Prentice of Prentice Westwood Ltd.

Newtongrange-based Prentice Westwood Ltd was established in 1946 and currently has a workforce of 80 staff, providing service to the local community and the wider public, with customers ranging from all local primary and secondary schools, local community clubs and groups to incoming tourists from around the world.

Prentice Westwood director Robbie Prentice said: “My company and many others like us are finding ourselves at the very edge of closure, and if industry specific support isn’t offered soon I fear that we may see a near total industry collapse in weeks.

“We understand that many industries are suffering; however, there are some unique factors for the coach industry that mean that we’re being hit particularly hard by the crisis.

“By its very nature the coach tourism industry is a seasonal one with many companies, such as ours, running at (or close to) a loss during the winter and using the busier summer season to support the business through the next winter period.

“We, and many operators like us, have seen an almost total loss of business, not only during the initial containment and delay phases but also throughout the longer tourism season and even into the remainder of 2020.

“The result is that we are likely facing an 18-month period of little to no work to sustain our business.”

Robbie highlighted the unique factors that are having a disproportionate impact on the coach industry compared to tourism as a whole.

He said: “Coaches cost around £300,000 per vehicle. Many operators have recently had to increase the rate of vehicle investments in order to help tackle the climate emergency and meet stringent standards for Scotland’s forthcoming Low Emissions Zones.

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“The average coach company faces around £60,000 in standing costs per month even with all staff furloughed and its doors closed.

“Due to the size of the investment required, all capital is invested back into newer vehicles; there is little cash available to weather the storm.”

Robbie fears Covid-19 might put an end to the 74-year-old business and many others. He said: “If nothing is done soon, we and many businesses like ours could close our doors for good and there is a significant risk of industry collapse.

“Without coaches who will bring people to Scotland’s towns and cities? How will groups reach destinations, attractions and hotels? Who will greet cruise ship passengers at the dock or come to the aid of travellers stranded when air or rail fails? Who will take children to school, grieving families to funerals, teams and fans to sporting events and provide vital local links that are critical to accessibility and social inclusion?

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“How many businesses that depend on coach tourism will be affected? How many jobs?

“Funds made available by Scottish Government for ‘coach’ are not applicable to coach tourism as they only apply to ‘coaches’ where they are operated on local bus or scheduled services.

“Operators who conduct private tours and group travel cannot access the funding and are therefore have no support to survive the crisis.

“Additionally, operators are receiving mixed messages from local authorities on the Coronavirus Business Support Fund, with many unable to access the funding as authorities are not including coach within the definition of the leisure sector. The few who have accessed the fund have seen it already spent meeting the earlier highlighted monthly stand

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“The coach tourism industry needs a bespoke grant if it is to survive.

“When the Covid crisis passes and life returns to normality, we need a resilient, strong coach industry that is able to support local tourism, the wider Scottish economy and Scotland’s people.

“Coach businesses have already begun closing their doors for good. We hope it is not too late.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We understand that these are concerning and unsettling times for everyone in Scotland.

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“We are determined to help keep companies in business and have offered a package of support worth £2.3 billion. This includes 1.6 per cent rates relief for all non-domestic properties and 100 per cent relief for properties in the retail, hospitality, leisure and airport sectors in 2020-21.

“Thousands of Scottish business properties can get a Small Business Grant in Scotland that they wouldn’t get elsewhere because the Scottish Small Business Bonus Scheme is the most generous in the UK.

“Our support for business now exceeds the business support consequentials passed on from the UK Government and actively works to fill the gaps in the UK scheme. We promised to pass on every penny received from the UK Government to businesses in Scotland and that’s what we are doing.

“We will continue to listen to and engage with the sector.”