Here’s the case for a national bus strategy

The good old days: a publicity shot from Mutiny on the Buses. Image: Allstar/Anglo-EMI/StudioCanal.

The Labour MP for Cambridge, on the buses.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was widely mocked by commentators earlier this year when he used PMQs to draw attention to problems faced by bus passengers. He had hit a nerve, however: cuts to council budgets have left rural services in tatters, and in towns and cities a toxic combination of rising fares and slow and unreliable journeys has led to falling passenger numbers which feeds the spiral of decline. Yet for millions, just getting to work on time and getting home in the evening depends on a reliable bus service.

 Problems on the railways lead to widespread media coverage, lengthy reports, reviews and general hand-wringing. But what happens when there are problems on our much more widely-used, but rarely reported, buses? The recent intervention from the chief executive of a private bus operator, Go-Ahead, calling for a national strategy for buses may just mark a turning-point.

The call for a national bus strategy is not new. In 2016, when the most recent bus legislation was discussed in Parliament, Labour proposed adding a clause to the Bill to mandate the Transport Secretary to issue a national strategy for local bus services, setting out the objectives, targets and funding provisions for buses over the next 10 years and providing sector cohesion.

And despite 30 years of bus privatisation, almost half of bus industry funding still comes from the public purse. Total public support for buses accounted for 41 per cent of overall industry funding in 2014-15; in 2010-11 that figure was even higher at 46.3 per cent. Despite savage cuts to council budgets, some money still funds socially necessary supported services on routes not served commercially by private operators. The government just about still passes funds to local authorities and makes it their duty to reimburse bus operators for trips made by concessionary pass-holders, including the statutory older persons’ and disabled passengers’ scheme.


However, back in 2016, despite the public funds going into the sector, the government rejected these calls for a national bus strategy. It rightly publishes national investment strategies for road and rail, as well as for cycling and walking, but claimed that an equivalent for buses would “not help local authorities to address issues relevant to them and their area”.

Conservative MPs claimed that bus profits are “shared with the public through shareholder dividends”. It is doubtful whether many bus passengers have shareholdings in bus companies, or feel that their councils are well resourced enough to battle the bus companies when it comes to service provision. Recent figures from the Campaign for Better Transport estimate that 3,347 bus services have been reduced or withdrawn across England and Wales since 2010. 

Despite its exclusion of a national bus strategy, the 2017 Bus Services Act had some positive consequences. Areas with metro mayors can now reregulate their local bus services through a franchising process similar to that used in London. It remains a complicated and lengthy process, but Greater Manchester is leading the way and other areas are watching progress closely.

With transport problems contributing to air pollution as well as congestion in most cities, councils are desperate to achieve more efficient, customer-friendly joined-up transport systems, with simple and good value ticketing. After 30 years of bus privatisation, the market has failed to achieve that; we now need a new approach.  

Today, even private bus companies are calling for change. Two weekends ago, Go Ahead published its submission to the future of bus services inquiry by the Transport Select Committee. Their call for a national bus strategy cites the need for better allocation of road space, a national strategy to support electric buses and charging, and reflects on the effect of austerity on local authority bus spending cuts. 

Put together, could we be about to see a renaissance in buses? That may be a touch optimistic. Forty years ago, the TV sit-com On the Buses was part of the fabric of everyday British life, Blakey's catch-phrases universally recognisable. For the majority of people in Britain, the ritual of waiting hopefully for the bus that forever seems to be late is still a part of their routine.

But for the decision-makers on the train or in their cars, the bus remains a curious mystery, yet another invisible wall in a fatally divided society. Tackling those divisions means properly understanding just how important the bus is to the lives so many people – which is why, as a start, it is time to have a national bus strategy.

Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge, and a member of the Transport Select Committee

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.