The Buses Bill gives England’s cities a chance to make real and immediate improvements to their residents’ lives

...then four come along at once. Image: Getty.

The thing about major pieces of legislation on UK city devolution is that you wait decades for one to arrive, but then two come along at once. And just like buses, while the first may be packed and likely to make its journey slowly, the second looks may reach its destination more quickly.

As you’ll no doubt have worked out by now, I am of course talking about the Bus Services Bill, which underwent its third reading in the House of Lords last week. It may not have been heralded to the same extent as the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA), with its focus on high profile metro mayors, Northern Powerhouses and Midlands Engines. But the immediate impact of the Buses Bill on the lives of millions of English city-dwellers will probably be greater than anything the CLGDA can deliver in the next few years.

Essentially, the Buses Bill will give combined authorities – even those without a metro mayor – the power to franchise bus services, which London alone has held in recent decades. That means they’ll be able to set out the routes, frequencies and quality standards that councils determine will best support their residents and firms. The idea is that this will help to reduce the complexity and cost that passengers face.

Simple fare structures and tickets across cities, with routes and stops closer to where people live and want to go, will have a tangible impact on people’s everyday lives – meaning less strain on their wallets, less time walking to and waiting at bus stops, and opening up journeys they may not have previously made.

Why is this important? As anyone who lives outside London will tell you, catching a bus in most parts of the country can be an expensive and confusing experience. All day tickets bought on one bus-line won’t work on another, while some destinations within a city can still require a brisk 20-minute walk from the nearest bus stop. Knowing when, and how often, that bus is running can be a struggle to find out – and a shock when you realise how infrequently they do. As a result, passengers are voting with their feet, with fewer and fewer bus journeys are taken across English cities beyond London.

Most local bus companies were owned and run by local councils from the 1930s until 1985. That year’s Transport Act, which deregulated and ushered in the privatisation of these companies, was intended to “to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years” as more people bought cars.

Since that act was introduced, however, passenger journeys in provincial English metropolitan areas have gradually halved, from over 2bn per year to 1bn. In London, by contrast, they held up at around 1.1bn journeys per year, before growing rapidly to nearly 2.5bn after Ken Livingstone became London’s first directly elected mayor.

When the new metro mayors take office next May, they will no doubt be keen to address these issues as part of a broader city-region economic strategy, addressing skills, housing and other economic challenges their areas face. But while most of those policies will take years to come to fruition, the Buses Bill  will enable combined authorities to take immediate action to improve bus services in their places – offering tangible signs of progress for voters who may still be unconvinced about the benefits of devolution.

For example, mayor of London Sadiq Khan gained considerable political capital as result of being able to enact his “Hopper” fare within months of coming into office. By contrast, realistically he may struggle to implement his other election promises over housing and air quality in one term in office.

Beyond the obvious economic, social and environmental improvements that a better bus service would bring, a unified bus system helps develop a shared identity of a place. In Greater Manchester, the Metrolink with its distinctive yellow and grey trams, helps to connect the city not only as a means of transport, but as a symbol shared by those who use it or see it every day, from Oldham to Altrincham. A similarly unified bus network would reach further and faster than any Metrolink extension ever could, and would help consolidate the new combined authorities in the minds of local residents.

The ongoing developments around the new metro mayors will continue to grab the headlines in the months running up to the election next May. But local leaders should not overlook the opportunities that the Buses Bill could offer to have an immediate impact in the everyday lives of the communities they represent – as well as to convince potentially sceptical voters of the advantages that devolution can offer.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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The best way to make housing more affordable? Raise interest rates

Lol, no. Image: Getty.

Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in September 2017, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, gave a stark assessment of the UK housing market which made for depressing listening for many young people: “For many the chance of getting onto the housing ladder has become a distant dream”, she said.

Now a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) provides further, clear evidence of this. The study finds that home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has declined sharply over the past 20 years. Home ownership rates have declined from 43 per cent at age 27 for someone born in the late 1970s, to just 25 per cent for someone aged 27 who was born in the late 1980s.

The most significant decline has been for middle-income young people, whose rate of home ownership has fallen from 65 per cent in 1995-6 to 27 per cent now – most significantly hitting aspirant buyers in London and the South-East.

Causes and consequences

The IFS study lays the blame for all this on the growing gap between house prices and incomes. Adjusting for inflation, house prices have risen 150 per cent in the 20 years to 2015-16, while real incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have grown by 22 per cent (and almost all of that growth happened before the 2008 crash).

A bleak picture. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But, as the report acknowledges, the problem goes much deeper than this. Home ownership rates differ by region. Although there has been a decline in home ownership rates for young people across all areas of Great Britain, the decline is less significant in the North East and Cumbria as well as in Scotland and the South West. The biggest decline in ownership has been in the South-East, the North-West (excluding Cumbria) and London.

So a person aged 25 to 34 is more than twice as likely to own their own home in Cumbria, as their counterpart in London. Worse, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to own their own homes – even after controlling for differences in education and earnings. Home ownership continues to reflect a deeper inequality of opportunity in our society.

More houses needed

Part of the problem is that both Labour and Conservative governments have seen housing as a single, stand-alone market and have focused their attention on what is happening to prices in London. But housing is a number of different markets, which have regional variations and different interactions between the owner-occupier, private rented and social rented sectors.

Regional variations in house prices for similar sized properties reflect the imbalances of the economy: it is heavily reliant on financial services, which are concentrated in London, while the public sector makes up a significant share of many local economies – particularly in the North. Migration from across the UK to overcrowded and expensive areas – such as London and the South-East – have put property prices in those areas even further out of reach for would-be buyers.

To make matters worse, both Labour and Conservative governments have routinely failed to build enough houses. While the current government’s aim to build 300,000 new properties a year by 2020 is welcome, it is simply not enough to meet the backlog in demand – let alone address the fundamental affordability problem.

Where homes are being built, they’re often the wrong types of homes, in the wrong places. Family homes are being built, despite there being some 4m under-occupied such properties across the country.

Not that long ago, government was reducing the housing stock in many parts of the North, through the disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme. Houses are currently being sold in smaller cities such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent for just £1. And none of the government’s actions suggest that ministers understand these issues, or are prepared to address them.

House price inflation – and the awful affect it is having on home ownership rates for young people – is part of a wider problem of the global asset bubble. This bubble has seen huge increases in the price of assets – stocks, housing, bonds – in high income countries such as the UK. Successive governments have helped to fuel this through quantitative easing, ultra-cheap money and successive raids on pension funds.

The ConversationWhat’s needed to address this asset bubble is a substantive increase in interest rates. But while this may slow the growth in house prices, the sad truth is it will do nothing to make housing more affordable for most young people.

Chris O'Leary, Deputy Director, Policy Evaluation and Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.