Renationalising Britain’s rail system is a daily debate. As many commuters feel the full force of ineffective, privatised rail companies, they’re vocal about their plight. But surprisingly, there are far more British bus users than rail commuters. And they have been neglected. A privatised bus system has meant that many are left stranded.
So, we ask: why have so many people in the UK been thrown under the bus?
The sitcom ‘On the Buses’ painted a picture of the British bus system in its heyday. If the lead characters Stan, Jack, and especially Inspector Blakey saw the state of the service today, they’d be less than impressed.
Joining us to work out why British buses are in such a parlous state are Steve Chambers from the Campaign for Better Transport, and the senior lecturer at Nottingham Business School, Dr John Disney.
Why are we in this mess in Britain?
“What we have is the result of deregulation in the 1980’s,” Chambers says. “We have a system that is a fudge between having completely just the services the operators want to provide. And then, on the other hand, local authorities responsible for identifying socially necessary routes and subsidising them. This kind of was working until about 2010, when we started to see the funding for local government reduce.
“And then year-on-year, well, we’ve been tracking the amount of money that the authorities have, and the amount of money they have to spend, or have been spending on tendered services has been reducing. Consequently, since then we have seen over 3000 bus routes in England either reduced or withdrawn.”
That is an incredible stat. And when you say England, too often the commuters talk in the southeast, when they’re talking about rail, you’re talking across the country.
“Actually we’re talking explicitly outside London,” he says.
“Another concession when deregulation came in was: leave London alone. It was understood that in London if you had completely a privatised free for all, and only having commercial operators, it would be a nightmare because you’d have different operators competing for the same routes. Actually, many of the problems that we see outside London would have been much bigger if it had happened in London.
“So, for example, competition is often a problem for people. If you have two operators on the same route, you might have bought your ticket for one operator, Aad then along comes a bus, but that bus takes a different pass. And you’ve got to see that bus go off, a bus that should be taking you home, but you can’t use it because you have to wait another hour.
“It’s exactly the free market, and it was decided politically, that was not palatable for London.”
But which bits are the free market? Politicians like a sort of pick-and-mix. They like that bit of the free market, but not this, not so much.
“Another other thing that’s interesting that has manifest in many places is that we effectively have monopolies over regions,” Chambers says. “So the operators may have started to have that competition, but actually, after a while worked out that they just prefer to dominate a particular region.”
And they hold that monopoly and then they rent seek on top of it because it is a natural monopoly, in a sense, because people need to get to work. People need to commute.
“Well, there’s a practical reason behind that,” he says. “The routes will be a service from one garage which will cover a particular area. And in fact we’ve seen, smaller operators have found it difficult to compete, to operate those routes, because they may have to travel further from that particular depot. And it’s very hard for them to compete with the larger operators.”
No bus plan for England
Nicole Badstuber, transport researcher at UCL explains that the bus market in England is deregulated and privatised.
“This means that local authorities do not strategically plan and manage the bus network,” she tells Renegade Inc. “Instead, private companies decide where, when and how frequent bus services are to run. All other services have to be subsidised by local authorities.
“Local authority funding for bus services has fallen by nearly half, since 2010: £180 million. In turn, over 3000 bus services have either been cut, or significantly altered since 2010, across all of England.”
Dr John Disney lived in Germany for some time. It turns out, that while not everything is perfect in1 Germany, an awful lot of things work. It doesn’t seem that we’ve looked at the European model of how to run buses and applied it to the UK.
“We certainly haven’t done,” he tells Renegade Inc. “We’ve learnt really very little from our European counterparts. And, in actual fact, although Germany is not one of the star countries for bus transport, it’s certainly better than in many parts of Britain. However, the real benchmark that we should be looking against are countries like Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
“They are the superstars, if you like, of the whole European public transport scene. Because not only have they got very good bus services, they’ve also integrated them with both train and tram services, with ferry services, and even with cable cars, in some places.”
Why have they got it right and we’ve got it so wrong?
“They’ve all got very regulated systems,” he says. “Although, they tend to have regional regulation of their bus services, and generally speaking, more national regulation of their rail services. They do encourage private bus operators in to operate these bus services, but they are very much a regulated, organised system.
“And particularly in the Netherlands, say, you’ve got the OV Chipkaard, which is a smartcard that you could use to pay for every mode of transport. It makes life simpler, it makes it easier, it speeds up boarding times, and makes sure that the operators get the correct apportionment of their fares pay for the services which are actually on offer. Which, of course, in Britain, has been a stumbling block, particularly with concessionary fares.”
What Disney has just explained is diametrically opposed to what Chambers has painted as a bus service in the UK.
“I’m not so sure,” says Chambers. “I mean, integrated ticketing is something that comes up again and again.”
It’s such a simple thing.
“So it should be,” he says. “This would be a role for the local authority to deal with, but it goes back to that point about the region, these will be much smaller, local authorities covering smaller areas. They’re not able, or up until now haven’t really had the powers to work with operators, to provide that kind of ticketing.
“We do have some legislation now, the Bus Services Act, which has been on the statute books for a year now. But none of the transport authorities have used those powers as yet, to partner with operators and provide those kinds of things like integrated ticketing. There’s also issues around linking up, as though that really good example, with the railway. That has a separate smartcard ticketing program that, so far, hasn’t been compatible.”
Is this lack of leadership? Is it a lack of political will? Is it a lack of vision? Is there a national strategy for buses?
“No, they are the only mode of transport that doesn’t have one at the moment,” says Chambers.
“Every other mode – including walking – has a national strategy. We are campaigning at the moment for there to be a national coach and bus investment strategy.”
Not even a strategy. So you talk about the Netherlands and other countries, Scandinavian countries and Switzerland being further ahead. How can we even begin this debate if we haven’t got a blueprint or a plan?
“Many of our European counterparts treat Britain’s public transport system as third-world and a laughing stock,” says Disney.
“And, in many cases, we actually are, because, as you said earlier, we have situations where we have operators still racing each other, on not particularly remunerative routes, often using roads which have actually got very few houses on them. Whilst there are parallel routes with lots of houses that are lucky to see a bus every hour. And that’s if those scheduled buses do actually turn up.”
Incompetence, or a mix of things which one person or one body can’t be held responsible for? Why are in this mess?
“So, we could have the money that was used on buses better spent,” says Chambers. “I think that goes back to the local authorities being in partnership with the operators. We’d like to see more of that. We now have the opportunity to copy the London model, the franchising model. That hasn’t happened in any other cities. We’ve had legislation in the past that tried to bring in these changes in 2000 and 2008. That wasn’t successful. I think there’s a fear amongst local authorities of using these powers.
“They were challenged when they used them before in the previous legislation. The 2017 Bus Services Act, is a good piece of legislation with a wide range of tools for local authorities to use. We’d really like to see them using those powers, and partnering with operators to improve bus services.”
It sounds very simple.
“It does,” says Chambers.
Disney told Chambers he’d have to politely disagree with him over the 2017 us Services Act.
“That piece of legislation is unlikely to achieve anything,” he said.
“The only metropolitan area with a mayor that is likely to try to go down the franchising route, will be Manchester.”
That’s Andy Burnham.
“But they are likely to face challenges from the two incumbent operators: Stagecoach, and First, which is likely to rumble on for two or three years, likely to go to the Supreme Court, because basically those operators will fight tooth-and-nail for compensation, for their assets and goodwill.”
So the legislation doesn’t pass muster?
“I think part of the issue is that, and I agree with that assessment, will create a chilling effect for other authorities who might just like to simply bring in a new ticketing scheme, maybe change the branding of the bus or whatever,” says Chambers.
“By seeing that example, and that, you know, that troubling example, they may be less likely to use the other powers, but there’s absolutely no reason that they should be feeling that they can’t.”
When I hear about bus services being cut in, for instance, rural Cumbria, mentally I always think of an old woman or man, an elderly person, who needs to get to somewhere to fraternise with their friends, hang out, do all the things that keep humans human. As a campaigner, and somebody who is organising, Chambers hears these heart-wrenching stories daily.
“And a wide range of stories,” says Chambers. “So there’ll be the older person who is now cut off, not able to get to the shops, see friends, is becoming lonely.
“But there is also, at the other end of the spectrum, younger people cut off from education. Further education colleges are becoming further apart, so it’s hard for them to get there. But worst of all, are people who find out their bus service isn’t go to be running, and that’s the only way they can get to work.
“I’ve heard stories of people who, their routes gone, and they’ve given up their jobs.
“That’s the worst outcome.
“And really, we’ve got to remember the buses are there because they have so many other benefits to society at large. They have an economic benefit. They connect employers with a wider pool of workers. They have environmental benefits of getting people out of cars. They’re cleaning up the air. And it’s very short-sighted when we cut these routes, because it isn’t just about a person getting from A to B. It is also about these wider benefits to society as a whole.”
I want to just come back to one thing here which is, you talk about going to work. What about these people who are getting themselves either back on their feet, or on their feet, and having to go and claim benefits? They naturally will have to use public transport, often a bus. What happens in that scenario when you have such an unreliable service?
“We have been looking at a village in East Anglia where, we found benefit claimants were so concerned about the bus service not being good enough for them to get to the job centre, that they were walking a 20 mile round trip, in open countryside, to get to their appointments on time.
“It really is having a very bad effect on a very wide range of people in society.”
And what Disney and the Nottingham Business School are also finding, is that where, say, the evening service is actually cut, because people are very much now on flexible job contracts. They may only need to travel one or two evenings a week. But if there is no bus service there for it, they can’t hold those jobs down. So they have to give those jobs up. We’re having problems certainly in the care sector. They have problems recruiting staff because that is definitely a 24/7 job.
“They’re having difficulty recruiting staff there because they simply cannot get there,” he says. “And if you start talking, particularly Sundays, late evenings, early mornings, about taxi fares, those taxi fares can actually be higher than the actual income that that care worker gets for an eight hour shift. So it’s just not actually feasible to work.”
Diminishing evening and weekend services is the nature of a lot of the subsidised services by local authorities, Chambers says.
“The operator will be running a commercial service, say, at nine and five, so getting people to work at those times, but anything outside of that, the councils have been stepping in. And people’s work patterns are changing. They work part-time, they work at different times of the day. So they don’t have a bus service. There’s nothing for them.”
This week’s Renegade Inc Index
Before we talk more about the shambolic British bus system with Steve Chambers and Dr John Disney, let’s have a look at what you’ve been tweeting about in this week’s Renegade Inc index.
First up from The Conversation:
There’s something wrong here isn’t there?”
“Well buses shouldn’t be a residual service,” says Chambers. “They should be so attractive to use, because they’re so frequent and easy to pay, and you know when they’re going to turn up, that everyone wants to use them. And that’s often the case in London.
“Outside of London we see that the service isn’t so great. It isn’t predictable, it doesn’t get people where they want to go, or quickly, or when they need to be there, and so a lot of people don’t use them. People don’t use them unless they have to use them, and they haven’t got an alternative.”
Next from Save Our Buses:
That is exactly the point Chambers was making in the first half.
“So we’ve been tracking this separately,” he says. “Local authorities all have a budget for school transport and they have been cutting that. This is actually hitting smaller bus operators, because they were relying on utilising their fleet for both the tendered bus services – subsidised routes – and the school transport. If you take one of those legs of the stool away, their business becomes unviable.”
Another from Save Our Buses:
This is exactly what Disney is saying.
“And if the bus services are not there to enable people to take 24/7 jobs, then they are going to remain on benefits, rather than actually giving something back through employment,” Disney says. “So, we do have a situation here where, in fact, we’re probably losing tax revenue, because there are certain people who are not able to work and therefore contribute to the income tax scheme.”
And finally a tweet from We Own It:
Is that true?
“Yes that was a measure in the Bus Services Act,” says Chambers.
This is the act that’s a good piece of legislation.
“Yeah. So, we continue to have a limited number of municipal bus companies that continue to exist, often with very successful and with high levels of passenger satisfaction. But that particular piece of legislation prohibited anymore of those being created.”
Disney goes further to actually say that the bus companies that are most successful in the passenger’s eyes, which offer the best level of services, and are actually seeing patronage levels grow, are the areas where we still have those council owned companies like Brighton, Nottingham, Edinburgh.
Is that a coincidence?
“No,” says Chambers.
Nicole Badstuber says Oxfordshire is an example where the local authority has completely cut funding for bus services.
“In 2016, Oxfordshire withdrew its last local authority supported bus service,” she says.
“West Oxfordshire community transport is an example where the community has stepped in to provide much needed bus services to Whitney and the surrounding area.”
How much lobbying goes into private bus companies talking to the government, saying ‘we want to maintain our monopoly,’ ‘we want to maintain our privileged position’?
“Well operators want more people to travel by bus as well,” says Chambers, “and actually, they are supportive of many of the measures that are in the Bus Services Act: the partnering with local authorities, for example.
“If you look at those municipal bus companies, what makes them good, it’s things like the branding. So you know that reliable bus unit, you know what to expect. It’s the way the fares are set. It’s all those things. You can actually achieve a lot of that with the powers in the Bus Services Act, but what’s missing is the local authorities saying ‘we want to do this’. It’s the political will, locally, to say ‘we are going to do this. We are going to explore these options. We are going to do this.’”
Cash strapped local authorities
So there isn’t the political will, at a local authority level, or the leadership, arguably, to actually say ‘you know what? We want to take this on ourselves’.
“One of the problems, is that most local authorities are very cash strapped,” says Disney. “And they’ve got lots of other demands upon them, and very often it’s things like: adult social care, it’s schools, it’s the potholes in the road that actually get the most attention. Buses get very much get pushed down to a secondary issue.”
Why is the bus, the humble bus, why is it pushed right to the bottom? Because if you think about the country, think of it as veins and arteries. The bus connects everything, from an economy point of view, an economist point of view. It’s the lifeblood, it gets people around.
Why has it become such a denigrated form of transport?
“It’s partly because it is being funded at the local level,” says Chambers. “Rail is handled nationally. Funding for roads, indeed, we have national agencies to do that. With the bus it’s funded locally, and it is not a statutory service. That’s not a service that local authorities are obliged to provide.
“The funding for it on the whole isn’t ring fenced, which means when they receive that money from central government they’re not obliged again to spend it on buses. So, it’s one that they feel that they are able to reduce.
“Unless local campaigners make a noise, and often we’ve seen local authorities saying they’re going to cut every tendered bus route that they’re provided, local campaigners get involved, they get active, they start a campaign and we’ve seen them at least save some of those services. There have been significant wins where they’ve made the case.”
But if it’s year-on-year, these budget cuts, it’s exhausting, is it not? For these poor people who are trying to hold down a job, and trying to hold down a family, and they still have to fight to keep this bus route open?
“We also have another issue though,” says Disney. “In that, whilst it is optional for councils to subsidise bus services, it is mandatory for them to subsidise the concessionary travel scheme.
“They’re not getting enough funding from central government for those concessionary travel schemes, so in many cases they’re having to divert funding from subsidising actual buses, which is optional, to subsidising the concessionary fare scheme, which is a mandatory scheme.
“So we get many instances where a council will still say that, ‘hey, we are still spending £10 million a year on local public transport’. But it turns out that out of that nine-and-a-half of the £10 million pounds they receive, is actually going to the concessionary fares, and only £500,000 goes to actually funding a very small number of bus services.
“So you enter the situation where you can have people with a bus pass, but no buses to actually use it on.”
It is absurd. It’s like a Monty Python scenario. How frustrating is it to see ministers throwing figures like a billion quid for the DUP, a billion quid for Bank of England. Magicking this money out of nowhere, because apparently there’s no magic money tree.
The case for a national coach and bus investment strategy
How maddening from a campaigner’s point of view is it for you? So actually if you start funding this, at local level, you’ll start to see economic activity take off.
“Well, this is why we’re pushing for a national coach and bus investment strategy,” says Chambers. “Because we want it to be understood what the wider benefits of public transport.
“Indeed, it’s the same for rail. You are getting people out of cars. You are cutting down on air pollution, which is a major concern of this government at the moment. It also has economic benefit. It means employers are connected to a wider pool of workers. It has social benefits, thinking of those older people who are not able to get about. Loneliness is an agenda of this government at the moment.
“So we are putting that case to them. They need to invest now. We are getting to the point where we have seen the funding come up to just about 50% cut since 2010, so it can’t go on much longer, because we won’t we won’t see any routes left at all being subsidised at the local level. So the time for action really is now.”
The bus as a social object. The bus as a community, if you like, because those same people often get on the same route every morning. You talk about loneliness. There must be mental health issues associated with people who have had routes cut at a time when mental health services have been terribly cut. There must be mental health issues around this.
“There are,” says Disney. “There are some major mental health issues here. I know of a gentleman in the adjacent village to me, who was forced to give his car up for health reasons.
“When he found out what the state of the local bus service was, not only has he now got physical problems, but he’s also got severe mental health problems, because he now finds himself totally isolated. And that was before further cuts to his bus service happened next month. And he isn’t someone who can just say ‘oh well, I’ll have to actually move’. He’s not physically well enough to be thinking of actually moving. He’s not actually someone who could actually probably get about and organise taxis for himself either. But, he is capable of going out at a certain time, waiting at a bus stop and boarding a bus.”
It’s astounding. Let’s go to solutions. I mean it’s ridiculous that we’re sitting here now saying we haven’t got a bus strategy.
I mean Britain 2018 we haven’t got a bus strategy. We’ve got a walking strategy, we haven’t got a bus strategy. So firstly, obviously, let’s get a bus strategy. Other solutions. What do we do?
“Funding,” says Chambers. “Needs money. And we need to understand and quantify the wider benefits. It’s not just about getting people from A to B. There are economic and social benefits. We need to quantify them. Just the costs of the NHS: if people can get about and live more active lives. That has a saving for the NHS. We have to see it in the round. It is funding. It is funding from central government to local authorities, specifically for buses.”
Disney says we’ve had eight years now of no increases in fuel duty.
“If you actually look at the latest statistics, if there was just a 1 pence per litre fuel duty put on all fuel for private use, that would raise £370 million per year.
“Two pence a litre. You’re talking about £750 million a year. That would go a huge way towards giving us a decent bus service.”
Chambers says our road building budget is huge, and building all the time. If just a tiny part of that was diverted to bus services that would have a huge improvement.
“So it’s not necessarily about spending more,” he says. “It’s about spending what we have differently.”
How to win over motorists
How do you counter those motorists who say ‘we don’t want more buses on the road’?
“I think they are being very shortsighted,” says Disney. “Because, in actual fact, if there are more buses on the road, there’s likely to be fewer cars, which will actually mean that the traffic flows will be better.”
Chambers says the bus is the most efficient way to move people on the roads.
“It carries more people,” he says. “If we actually give them priority, and give them bus lanes, as well more people using the bus because they know they’re going to be able to get to their destination on time. When you do that, you release up space for other drivers. Unfortunately, for some, it doesn’t seem to be common sense. And that’s often the reason that they’re opposing the idea of buses or indeed bus lanes. But they are an answer to congestion on the roads, which is increasingly an issue.”
Disney says one of the problems with bus lanes is they’re in the wrong place.
“Or sometimes where there’s only been two or three buses per hour,” he says. “But where bus lanes go in, and generally speaking with 15 or 20 buses per hour using them, most motorists can see the benefit of them, and in an actual fact, don’t want to be cut up between buses and would rather buses have a dedicated lane, and leave the other lane for the private cars.”
Is this the darkest hour before the dawn?
“I think we can hope,” says Chambers. “I mean, we’ve been producing our report every year showing the decline of the bus routes, so we know what we have. It’s the Buses in Crisis Report. That shows that over 3000 routes have been cut. It shows the level of funding, with almost half the funding for buses. It’s time, now, to take action, to fund this properly. To have a strategy. To use the powers that we have to get local authorities encouraged and enabled to take control of buses. To have local strategies. To appoint champions for buses. To have senior people in local authorities responsible for buses. Taking them seriously, in effect.”
Final thought on darkest hour before dawn. Are we at the lowest point?
Disney says we’re right at the rock bottom now.
“We really can’t get much worse,” he says.
“And there is the danger now, that not only have we seen so many of the medium sized bus operators failing, we could actually soon see one of the large groups going under, and that would be a real eye opener.”