Reclaiming Our Buses: Following Scotland’s Example

New legislation recently adopted in Scotland could spell the end of the Thatcherite consensus on buses south of the border as well.

We know that buses meet vital needs, getting us to our workplaces, services, shops, hospitals, and our loved ones. They’re crucial to us achieving healthy, zero carbon places. They’re vital to a functioning society we are able to be a proud part of. In the UK, buses make up around 59% of all public transport journeys. In Greater Manchester, it’s 80%.

Though they are the backbone of our city regions, our buses across a lot of the UK are just not up to scratch currently. This is because of the disaster that is deregulation and privatisation, which Thatcher’s government initially forced on us starting with the Transport Act of 1985.

Events last week, however, suggested that we could be leaving this old Thatcherite consensus behind. But we’ve got a lot of work on our hands.

Scotland’s parliament has just confirmed amendments to its new Transport Bill which will allow all councils to establish a publicly owned bus company if they want. Get Glasgow Moving has been campaigning on this for two years, after it looked as if Scotland was at risk of copying English legislation; in England, setting up a new municipally owned bus company is illegal currently.

Could Glasgow be the next place to get publicly owned, integrated transport now that these restrictions have been lifted? Or Aberdeen or Dundee?

Edinburgh’s transport network shows how public ownership can work really well. In 2017, Edinburgh’s transport system was ranked among the best-performing in the world – second in the UK after London – in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Mobility Index. In the same year, Lothian Buses returned £6m to the City of Edinburgh Council, which reinvested the dividend into the Edinburgh Trams Project. Similarly, Reading, which has a municipally owned bus service, is able to reinvest an additional £3 million into buses, around 12-15% of its annual turnover. The extra money means better quality buses, and is one reason why more people take the bus in Reading.

This investment is only possible because these companies do not have to pay out dividends to private shareholders. Public ownership of buses would save £506 million a year across the UK, money that could be reinvested into developing better bus networks and affordable fares.

In Europe, public ownership is the norm, with 88% of German journeys happening on publicly owned networks. If public ownership works so well, why do we in Britain carry on with this ludicrous way of running our buses?

In the UK, most bus networks across the country are deregulated right now, except for a few pockets; those areas where Britain’s nine publicly owned buses companies exist, and also where we have regulated networks in London and Jersey. London’s buses were never deregulated in the 80s, many say because this was deemed too risky when bus services in the capital had to be stable and consistent.

Deregulation means that private bus companies set their own fares, routes, timetables, and they have their own various (and often confusing) ticketing structures. There is little integration and they have to give around 56 days of notice if they cut a service. They have all of the power.

Local authorities have no control over commercial bus services, which make up the majority (around 80% in Greater Manchester) of services, leaving us with no say at all over fares and routes. The remaining services are subsidised by local authorities to pay for services which the bus companies won’t run because it isn’t profitable enough for them. It’s worth highlighting that in the UK around 40% of bus companies’ revenue comes from public money.

In practice, this means bus companies are cherry picking the most profitable routes, pocketing millions and it’s public money - our money - that pays for anything else, the socially necessary routes, at a price they set. Currently, we’re running buses for shareholders, and not for our communities. All this while bus company shareholders have received £1.49 billion over the last ten years in dividend payouts. And 10% of the public money which is given to bus companies ends up being paid out as dividends.

We’ve had enough. While it may not be ‘the real McCoy’ to some, public control would transform our buses in Greater Manchester, and set a precedent for the rest of the UK to follow if we can win.

Originally, I was excited and enthusiastic to campaign for a better public service, one that serves people over profit. However, after spending time speaking to so many people with so many different experiences, I want to fight for better buses not just because we deserve better services, but because I’m aware that we simply cannot go on without them improving drastically.

OneBus GM, the group of bus companies campaigning against public control of our buses in Greater Manchester, said recently that bus passenger satisfaction ‘shows you that there’s not really an issue.’ However, in Greater Manchester, 37% of jobseekers say that transport is a barrier to accessing work. Meanwhile, over 3000 routes have been cut from our bus networks in the UK. To put that into context, an enormous eight million miles of routes have been cut from Greater Manchester’s network since 2010.

There is a big issue with the way our buses are being run currently, and we’re not letting the bus companies get away with it any longer.

While bus use outside of London has halved since the time of privatisation and deregulation, in public control London’s bus use has doubled, facilitating 2.2 billion journeys a year, more than the rest of the country combined.

Public control gives local authorities in London, specifically Transport for London, the ability to plan the bus network. They specify the routes, fares, the ticketing and timetables, integrating the bus with other modes. It means that authorities can use profits from busy routes to subsidise socially necessary services and more affordable fares, so all communities have a reliable bus service.

Public control allows you to integrate buses into a comprehensive network of trams and trains, with real time information, again because one body, the local transport authority, is planning the network.

We need public control as a minimum to provide a bus service for our region, one which uses our tax money well, and we need to see this replicated throughout Britain.
It’s also a crucial step to public ownership, as it puts an end to the free market in buses. It paves the way for public ownership of buses, as it makes it much easier to set up an operation in an area in which you are controlling the network and who operates where, as opposed to competing against companies with cash to burn in competing against you.

We in Greater Manchester know what we want. According to recent polling carried out by Survation, 76% of Greater Manchester said they wanted to see our buses re-regulated.

The big bus companies don’t like the idea of public control. However, when you know that bus companies in a publicly controlled framework make half the profit margins, you start to realise that this is because public control means less cash for those at the top. Bus companies instead want a voluntary option where they offer selected improvements. In their proposal, they admit they won’t run buses unless they are ‘commercially viable’, which says it all really. Bus companies will continue with their approach, as outlined in Stagecoach’s Greater Manchester 2018 company accounts, under the section ‘future outlook’, of ‘target mileage reduction and selective fare increases’.

Scotland is turning away from Thatcher’s illogical and inefficient bus laws. It’s time for public control and ownership across the UK, and Greater Manchester’s Mayor, if he shows the boldness of being the first to go for public control of our buses, could set the precedent for others to follow. Andy Burnham, stand with the people of Greater Manchester, passengers and staff, and bring our buses back into public control.