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

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.