Government funding to improve bus services is likely to be slashed by half as the Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin must “settle for a managed decline”.
On 18 December 2021, 9,000 Leeds bus drivers went on strike, hugely disrupting services during the busiest time of the year. The strike was the result of 30 years of pressure and dissatisfaction.
The allure of privatisation
The slow destruction of the North’s transport services began in 1985 with the Transport Act. As part of Margaret Thatcher’s agenda to revitalise the economy by reducing the role of the state, buses were privatised. By the 1990s, more than 40 UK state-owned businesses had been privatised.
Currently, private companies own a large portion of bus services. FirstBus serve “two-thirds of the UK’s 15 largest conurbations”.
It was assumed that the free market would eventually establish an equilibrium between supply and demand, and would raise standards by giving organisations more autonomy to improve quality, innovate, and meet demand to keep a competitive edge. That did not happen.
Deregulation resulted in bus wars that go on to this day. Bus companies began operating on their competitors’ routes, often flooding the streets with empty buses in an effort to drive away the competition for the most lucrative routes.
In 2000, the Independent reported that Stagecoach was found guilty of:
- Using dirty tricks to try to lure passengers from rival companies in Manchester’s bus war.
- Parking its vehicles on the bus stops of other operators in a city-centre square, blocking their access. Stagecoach inspectors then stood in front of rival vehicles, obstructed the doors, and ‘herded’ passengers towards waiting Stagecoach buses.
When asked about the shrinking bus network in 2018, John Disney, a transport researcher and lecturer at Nottingham Business School, told the BBC:
“Commercial operators have definitely, over the last 10 years, become much more risk-averse and so they are really concentrating on what they consider to be their core routes and are not really bothered about much else.”
Unprofitable services and increased prices
In recent years, bus companies have struggled to make a profit and have had to downsize. First Group sold its prized US businesses and lost rail franchises such as ScotRail. Since 2020, fare-paying and concessionary fares declined by 65 percent.
Although this can be blamed on the pandemic, data suggests that this has been an ongoing concern, as passenger journeys fell by 38 percent between 1982 and 2017.
This may explain rising bus fares, which have increased by 403 percent, despite companies also receiving 42 percent of funding from taxation. And the prices rises have affected customer satisfaction too, with First Bus rated as one of the worst bus services in the UK.
Impact of poor bus services
- Placing “severe barriers” to low-income people who are heavily impacted by rising costs and service cuts.
- An inability to afford transportation can prevent people from accessing necessary services, limiting access to work.
- Reducing quality of life and increases health inequalities.
The cuts to bus routes have also had a significant impact in rural communities such as Swaledale and Upper Wharfedale in North Yorkshire. They rely on volunteer drivers and voluntarily managed bus companies, without which there would be no rural buses at all.
The cutbacks affect many people, such as the elderly for whom bus travel is a lifeline.
Raising standards of public transport can help alleviate poverty and stimulate the company as around 400,000 workers are in better, more productive jobs.
The rumbling of outrage
The public are frustrated. Campaigns such as Better Buses for Yorkshire, Megaphone, and We Own It, are calling for buses to return to public control. And there is a growing consensus within local government that buses would run better under public control. Greater Manchester is already taking its first steps to becoming the first city outside of London to bring buses back under public control.
In Edinburgh, Lothian Buses is an award-winning bus company owned by the public that has kept bus fares low and services running well.
The slow march towards devolution
However, returning buses to public ownership maybe a slow and arduous process and some council leaders, such as Cllr James Lewis, have accused the government of “putting obstacles in the way”.
Combined authorities have been the olive branch that central government has offered local governments, to offer them more control. The West Yorkshire Bus alliance is one of the many initiatives allowed by central government in which the combined authorities work with private companies to improve services. It aims to give the public sector more responsibility and accountability whilst retaining a degree of commercial freedom for bus operators.
Why should we care?
The use of individual cars is harming the economy. In London, the cost of congestion to the capital’s economy is £5.1bn per year or £1,211 per driver.
Reducing the use of petrol and diesel cars would also have a positive effect on the environment. Car usage is responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related greenhouse emissions.
While switching to electric vehicles would reduce air pollution, some 350 million on-road electric vehicles would consume half the national electricity demand generation and need excessive amounts of critical materials eg Lithium to be deployed. And the emissions created by manufacturing this many vehicles would also be a major blow to tackling climate change.
Investment in public transport is vital to slash emissions by 78 percent by 2035. Returning buses to public ownership can raise the quality of services, reduce inequality, and reduce the burden on the public purse. With consensus between social movements and local governments that bus services would be better under public control, perhaps the age of privatised bus services is slowly coming to an end.