The Big Lemon could go out of business by the beginning of the next academic year if Brighton and Hove buses continue to charge equivalent prices.
In January this year the Big Lemon competitor, Brighton and Hove buses, reduced their day ticket price from £3.70 to £2.50 for the 23 and 25 routes. These are the routes that run parallel to The Big Lemon’s service from Old Steine to the University.
This move has followed a price reduction in autumn for weekly tickets, from £10 to £8 along these routes. These prices now directly mirror The Big Lemon prices and have been called “a direct attack on the Big Lemon’s service” by the Students’ Union (SU).
Tom Druitt, managing director of The Big Lemon, said: “Of course, it’s obvious why the fares reductions are not across the board: they cannot afford to reduce prices by that much across the city. “So why have they done it on the Lewes Road? We assume to get rid of The Big Lemon.”
He added: “The challenge now is that the future of The Big Lemon service is at stake, as is, more importantly, the future of competition in Brighton and Hove and by extension, pretty much everywhere else.”
The SU has now passed the ‘Motion for Long Term Transport’ following these price changes. At the SU Council meeting they highlighted the positive impact that The Big Lemon has had on choice and services for student transport. The SU also noted The Big Lemon provides competition within transport, as well as an innovative sustainable alternative bus for students.
There is a fear that now the buses are equally priced students are being swayed by a more regular service provided by Brighton and Hove, due to the sheer number of buses. The Big Lemon insist that if Brighton and Hove continue with these pricing strategies the they will be forced to stop running by the next academic year. This would create a monopoly for Brighton and Hove.
Questions are being asked about how Brighton and Hove can run bigger buses, a more frequent service and use more expensive fuel and still manage to break even, which The Big Lemon only just does.
If Brighton and Hove buses are running their service at a loss, then they would be taking part in a form of illegal pricing and would be contravening EU competition law.
The Big Lemon are legally restricted as to what can say and so have asked that the Union and Big Lemon users get as involved as they can.
Students are the majority of The Big Lemon’s clientele and the Students’ Union will actively support The Big Lemon by lobbying the relevant groups, launching petitions and supporting the issue throughout Green Week. They have also resolved to provide official representation for Big Lemon strategy meetings.
The issue has even reached local politicians. Mike Weatherley, Hove’s Conservative MP, has written a letter to Brighton and Hove city council’s chief executive John Barradel expressing his concern: “It would appear though that Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company is running a very hostile campaign against an emerging competitor which, if left unchecked, could result in the loss of a much-loved benevolent enterprise.”
Roger French, Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company Managing Director, responded saying: “The allegation that we are trying to run them off the road is nonsense.
“We change our prices all the time. We are forever doing different pricing schemes and we will continue to do so. It has got nothing to do with other bus operators.
“We welcome the fact that there are other bus companies and I think competition is a good thing.”
The Big Lemon has been operating since 2007 and expanded their service at the beginning of this academic year. On Shrove Tuesday they gave out free pancakes and will deploy two entertainers to raise money for Comic Relief.