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.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.