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./

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.