Buses are back on the agenda – but neither party has a strategy for halting their decline

A bus passes the Middlehaven redevelopment site. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Buses are back on the political agenda in the UK. The two main party leaders, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, have both made modernising public transport central to their pitches in the current general election.

The big-ticket items on both sides are to do with railways. Both parties promise to invest in new high speed trains and in improving the poor services in the north of England, and Labour promise to take train companies back into public hands as part of their extensive programme of nationalisation. That isn’t surprising: railways have always appealed to the politician who wants a grand projet as a legacy.

The attraction of the humble bus is a little harder to explain. As ever in politics, the answer is to follow the numbers. Bus journeys dwarf rail journeys – there are 10 times more of them every year. But those numbers are in decline and, together with route closures and the reduction in bus grants – down nearly a half in a decade – the missing bus has become a symbol of austerity and government neglect of the public realm in villages, towns and cities. In parallel, the rise of new city region mayors has created powerful politicians outside London, like Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham. who make the case for public transport as crucial to economic vibrancy and city regeneration. 

Crucially, though, for this election period, buses are used by large numbers of Labour voters the Conservatives want to win over. And Johnson is that rare Tory leader: one with a genuine passion for buses. As mayor of London he had a new double-decker designed and built for the city’s transport network – the eponymous “Boris Bus”.

In many ways, London is the model for the reforms that Burnham wants for Manchester and Labour is offering in its manifesto. When Margaret Thatcher opened the bus market in England to competition in the 1980s, she exempted London. The mayor franchises bus routes, protecting Londoners from the free for all of the “bus wars” that privatisation brought. Transport for London, the mayor’s strategic agency, also integrates ticketing for rail, tube, tram and buses through the Oyster card.

Cynics with a long memory will see City Region Mayors controlling public transport as just the return of the English Metropolitan Counties in a new guise. There is some truth to that. What is interesting is that the drive is towards franchising rather than the wholesale municipalisation of the bus network.

This is because the new generation of bus industry leaders talk the same language as politicians. Meet the Chief Executive of one of the bus companies and the will talk to you about climate change – they will tell you that their buses are going electric, that one full double decker replaces 75 cars and that their “Chatty Bus” helps to tackle loneliness and improve mental wellbeing. Great corporate citizens who see that their buses are vehicles for so many important policy outcomes.


However, the problem with bus policy – both Labour and Conservative – is that it risks missing the fundamental point. Neither party has any coherent strategy for halting, let alone reversing, the decline in bus usage.

Franchising is not the answer. In the words of HL Mencken, that’s a policy which is “simple, obvious and wrong”. The lesson of London is not that bus privatisation is a failure, nor that buses are cheaper or more frequent than outside the capital. Bluntly put, it is that the main competition to buses – the car – has been made systematically more expensive. It’s not just the congestion charge, it’s also the way that bus and cycle lanes cut car space and make roads more congested and slower for drivers. Then there’s planning policies that have central London so much denser – unlike most of the country’s big cities. And the cost of parking in large parts of London – plus tough enforcement – which increases the expense of driving.

In the end, this is the harsh reality that the battle between the Labour and Tory parties over bus policy conceals. It is impossible to make buses so cheap and the networks so extensive that people give up cars: that would be unrealistically costly. People will only be driven out of their cars by making them far more expensive.

But there’s a collusive consensus here. Drivers in English towns and cities are precisely the swing voters over whom the parties are fighting in the marginal constituencies which will decide the election. Neither Johnson nor Corbyn would dream of suggesting a policy that would make driving more expensive.

So we are left with warm words and modest change that may slow the decline of bus use but the full potential of this form of transport – which is now nearly 200 years old – will remain untapped.

John McTernan was a senior adviser to the Blair government.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.