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./

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.