Is Labour on the Buses?

Dave Gardner

Good public transport is key to economic success and social well-being. Compared with northern Europe, the United Kingdom, with the exception of London, is poorly served. Throughout the UK, bus services are the key to the ability to travel to work, to study, to see family and to socialise for all those who cannot afford or do not wish to own a car. Until 1985 bus services were largely run by local authorities but legislation in that year stripped them of this right, allowing Greater London only to control its services by specifying what it wanted and franchising those services to bus companies. In the rest of the country private companies were allowed to run whatever services they could make a profit on and whatever local authorities chose to subsidise them for. The predictable result was a long term decline in ridership accompanied by a large increase in fares, making car ownership progressively cheaper relative to the use of public transport. This situation applies throughout England and Wales with the exception of London. Despite the obvious problem with privatised bus services, Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010 did nothing to roll back the pernicious legislation of Thatcher’s government.

The story of cynical neglect is little short of astonishing. Between 1985 and 2020 bus journeys in cities outside London declined by around 55%. In London they have risen by around 76% over that period. The Tory-Lib and Tory governments from 2010 onwards cut bus subsidies from £3.2 billion in 2010 to £2.3 billion in 2020, a decline of some 28%. Between 1987 and 2020, bus and coach fares have risen 400% while motoring expenditure rose 160% (source: Financial Times, April 27th, 2022). In other words, those people who have little alternative but to use public transport have been made to suffer the most through increased fares and declining services. Thirteen years of Labour governments did nothing to address this decline which continued uninterrupted between 1997 and 2010, when it accelerated due to austerity. The Blair and Brown governments neglected the people whom the Labour Party was founded to serve, damaging their ability to travel to work, to study and to socialise. Norman Tebbit’s 1986 injunction to the working class to ‘get on their bikes’ to look for work sounds hollow and cynical given the damage done to the ability to move around inflicted by Thatcher’s and Major’s Tories and their Labour successors. 

Without adequate public transport roads become clogged, journey times slow, pollution increases and those without access to other means of getting around find their lives restricted. They cannot access jobs and apprenticeships that are not in their immediate vicinity, they cannot attend colleges that offer the courses they want and their ability to access friends and family is restricted. Their lives and prospects are hobbled. Employers too want to access labour, including skilled labour. If people cannot travel to their premises or have not been able to acquire the skills that employers need, then they are less likely to locate to such an area. Economic revival as well as civilised social living requires good public transport. The better the transport links the more jobs, courses and apprenticeships become available. Employers will be able to access a larger pool of skilled labour. Transport links should also be provided to areas that have the potential for economic revival but are now in the doldrums.

The failure of their own policies had begun to dawn on the Tories during May’s time in government and in 2017 legislation was passed that allowed local authorities to plan their bus services and to franchise them to companies, provided they followed the correct procedure for doing so. So far only Greater Manchester has done this, in the teeth of fierce opposition from two large bus companies, Stagecoach and Rotola. Manchester eventually won this legal battle and is now on course to introduce a franchising system. Note that this was carried out on the initiative of the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, not the national Labour Party. Labour does not appear to have a policy except for the sensible one of nationalising bus services introduced during Corbyn’s time as Labour leader. Not surprisingly, we have not heard anything recently about this policy from Labour or indeed any constructive comments on how they would like to see bus services across the country improved. Starmer seems content to continue the Blair-Brown neglect and contempt for working people.

Policy on regional and local public transport needs to be set in the context of the abortive ‘levelling up’ agenda of the Tories, to which Labour has as yet no convincing alternative. The Tories’own £3bn package for bus revival has been emasculated by the Treasury and some of those areas, like Sheffield which had put in funding bids have been left empty-handed. At the time of writing increased subsidies for buses would do little more than restore the level previous to the austerity cuts, and probably do less than that given the inflation of the last 12 years. At the very least, Labour ought to make it easier for local and regional to franchise services. A little more boldness would involve nationalising them and handing them over to the local authorities. However, a policy in a manifesto will mean little to people if they cannot see how it will affect them. There is no reason why Labour councils and Labour groups on councils should not take matters into their own hands and through extensive research and consultation with local people, employers, colleges, schools, hospitals, research institutes and trade unions, establish what the priorities should be in providing bus services that will actually make a material difference to people’s lives. Labour can then spell out in detail for each constituency what their proposals would entail and how they would improve people’s lives. There is a need to show in a convincing way that national policies can have a significant local impact and improve people’s lives in ways that they will notice.

Although, compared with trams and local rail, buses are not always the ideal option, they are undoubtedly the one that will make the greatest impact in the smallest amount of time. They require little in the way of new road building or infrastructure, apart from depots and maintenance centres, which will themselves create new employment. More drivers need to be recruited and trained, new buses will need to be ordered and built. This will take at least a year, so a Labour government would need to be ready with the legislation and the funding as soon as it arrives in power. Ideally this would be done as part of a more comprehensive levelling up strategy that would take into account reducing unemployment, promoting economic development, vocational education, new housing and improving the housing stock and amenities. All these are desirable but all will take time except for some emergency measures to deal with persistent youth unemployment. Getting buses back on the roads where people need them would be an early sign that Labour is in earnest and could form the basis for the other initiatives that must follow. Labour probably needs a leader other than the abysmal Starmer to make this happen.

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