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Bus networks have become a gravy train where cowboy companies milk passengers – we need public ownership.

“If Labour Mayors want to establish a real legacy of transforming their regions, bringing the buses into public control would be a good place to start.”

By Matthew Topham, campaigner with Better Buses for West Yorkshire.

Over half of trips taken on public transport are taken by bus. And yet for years the crisis on our buses has gone largely unreported and unaddressed for decades. 

At the start of this week, it seemed that might be about to change. The government announced its ‘National Bus Strategy’, with a £3 billion price tag and promising a ‘revolution’ on our buses. 

Don’t believe the hype. Despite the grandiose language, this strategy offers nothing meaningful in the way of change. The so-called ‘revolution’ is going to be more of the same for passengers who have suffered under for more than 30 years of wrong-headed policies on our buses.

Thatcher privatised our buses over 30 years ago, and fully deregulated them everywhere outside of London. Almost all of our publicly run bus services were lost, and a ban on councils setting up their own publicly owned bus companies came later. 

The result? Our bus networks have become a gravy train where cowboy companies milk passengers and the public for every penny while consistently delivering a shoddy service.

Private bus companies paid out £1.49 billion to shareholders in ten years prior to 2019. Outside of London, bus fares have risen by a staggering 71% since 2005. Millions of miles of routes have been cut by private bus companies looking to reduce costs and increase profits, leaving communities across the country isolated without a service to get them to work, the hospital or to see their friends. Disgraceful employment practices like Go North West’s fire and rehire policy for their staff have blighted our bus drivers.

The impact of this on passengers is palpable. For example, West Yorkshire, bus usage has fallen by 60 per cent in 35 years, with the network having shrunk and people not able to pay through the nose to access transport.

The government’s so-called ‘revolution’ for our buses won’t do anything to remedy any of this. Indeed, its National Bus Strategy recommends that local authorities move towards ‘partnership’ arrangements with private bus companies. In practice this means local councils asking nicely for improvements from private operators who have no obligation to follow through. It means all the power remains in the hands of the private bus companies. And it means more of the same rip-off passengers have suffered under for decades. Councils have had the power to do this for the past 30 years and still our buses have only got worse. 

Contrasting this with the situation in London and the evidence is stark. Bus usage in London has doubled over the period that the network has been deregulated across the rest of the country. That’s because Transport for London has the city’s buses under public control. Fares, routes, profit margins, environmental standards, the colour of buses – everything is regulated directly. While this doesn’t deliver all of the benefits a fully publicly owned bus network would, comparing London’s buses with elsewhere in the country is like chalk and cheese. 

London’s model could be replicated elsewhere. Mayors of combined authorities – like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, or Steve Rotheram in Liverpool – have the power to regulate their buses and bring them into public control, giving these city-regions a bus network just like London has. 

The Labour Party currently holds four of the combined authority mayoralties in England, It could be in control of more after May 6, with the West of England and West Midlands mayoral elections being incredibly close last time around, and West Yorkshire electing a mayor for the first time. 

If these Labour Mayors want to establish a real legacy of transforming their regions, bringing the buses into public control would be a good place to start. 

Bringing the buses under public control would ensure that private bus companies can’t get away with just running the routes they can make the most profit off while slashing routes that isolated communities depend on. Buses in public control would enable people to access employment they’re currently shut out of because they have no means of getting to work. And buses in public control would be a major step towards addressing the climate emergency – enabling people to get out of their cars and onto public transport, while greening the fleets of buses so they’re environmental impact is reduced. 

These are the kind of things Labour should be driving forward in our communities. Now is the time for Labour mayors to step up and to deliver the revolution on our buses we really need.

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