What Bus Regulation: The Musical can tell us about the follies of privatisation

Some historic bus company logos. Image: Pascale Robinson.

“Are you here for the bus event?” asks the woman, with just a trace of weariness. Myself and two other people confirm that, yes, we are here to attend Bus Regulation: The Musical

We are directed to the first floor of Manchester Art Gallery where a lengthy queue is forming outside gallery 12. Staff, who seem surprised but unfazed by the high turnout, begin sorting us into two queues; those who booked ahead and those who didn’t. It is going to be a full house, despite the torrential rain outside.

This 30 minute musical, a collaboration between Manchester Art Gallery and artist Ellie Harrison, was inspired by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1984 musical, Starlight Express. It seeks to tell the history of bus regulation in the Greater Manchester area from the 1960s onwards. 

Our compere is Barbara Castle (ably played by Summer Dean) who, as transport minister in the first Wilson government, sought to unite and integrate the 11 municipal bus companies operating in the Greater Manchester area. Castle introduces the audience to the bus fleets, each of whom is represented by a skater from Arcadia Roller Derby. They are dressed in capes like superheroes, and proudly sport the crest of their local corporation on their t-shirt.

As Castle describes the various stages of bus regulation, from local control to the founding of the Greater Manchester Authority and greater integration of council areas and services, the “buses” echo the changes, removing their town crests and donning the orange branding of Greater Manchester’s integrated fleet, SELNEC. They seamlessly circuit the audience, holding onto each others capes, moving as a smooth, well oiled machine. 

The audience are a mixture of ages and backgrounds, and they seem to be enjoying themselves. There is laughter at the often acerbic commentary by Castle, and there’s a good deal of pantomime style booing when we reach 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. 


As the decades flash by, and the effect of bus deregulation in 1986 becomes manifest, we can see the impact on the buses as the circling skaters become more chaotic: logos and capes are changed at an increasingly giddying speed, representing the rapid acceleration of company buyouts and takeovers. There are fewer buses and those that are left begin to overtake and menace each other in an echo of the city’s infamous bus wars. They begin to bunch up, leaving long gaps in the circuit, suggesting bad timetabling and a scarcity of services.

And then, just when you think all is lost, a bit of sunshine comes over the horizon in the form of the 2017 Bus Services Act and the tantalising carrot of public control. 

The buzz of conversation after the show suggests that the audience have enjoyed the performance but that they have also been left with a lot to think about. Many stop to talk to Harrison or to campaigner Pascale Robinson of the Better Buses For Greater Manchester group, who is handing out flyers by the exit. 

Better Buses support Mayor Andy Burnham’s plans for public control of the Greater Manchester bus network, plans which are due to go out to public consultation on 15 October. Should the scheme go ahead, it will be a green light for other local authorities, such as Newcastle and Glasgow, who are keenly watching events in Manchester. Bus regulation: The musical is an unlikely tool in the campaign’s arsenal – but as the audience figures show, unusual times call for unusual measures. 

Cazz Blase campaigns for bus reform as part of Better Buses For Greater Manchester./

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.