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./

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.