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