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Magic bus: making a case for local transport

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Commentary on the decline of buses 

Christmas, as every child knows, is about getting some shiny new overpriced toy that you think is the coolest thing ever, neglecting all the old ones.

While it would be stretching this already slightly forced analogy to suggest ministers, like Roy Wood, wish it could be Christmas every day, the government’s transport priorities have certainly focused on shiny, new and very expensive gizmos, rather than the reliable and unglamorous.

Thus the £56bn HS2 – seen as a game changer in changing Britain’s national wealth imbalance – has been approved and transport secretary Chris Grayling has given his backing to London’s £31bn Crossrail 2 scheme.

But northern council leaders have been furious the proposed electrification of their key routes has not won funding, or at least very much funding. In fairness, a £1.7bn transforming cities fund was announced for transport in the Budget, which also saw chancellor Philip Hammond cough up £337m for new trains for the Tyne and Wear Metro. But this is relatively small change compared with that lavished on London and HS2.

Lord Adebowale (Crossbench) made an astute point on the assumptions behind the latter project earlier this year. Speaking at the People’s Powerhouse conference in Doncaster, the charity chief, who described himself as “not anti-HS2”, said: “The presumption is that everyone in the north wants to hop down to London. But it should be about building an economy here.”

While there is some scope to improve the lot of less advantaged regions by improving transport links to the capital, one fears high ticket prices will put HS2 beyond the reach of many. And while it may make it easier to travel between the capital and Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield city centres (most of which are already pretty buoyant), the benefits will be fewer to the rest of the Midlands or north if you have to switch from HS2 to fairly decrepit conventional public transport to complete your journey.

When it comes to building a local economy – and improving social inclusion – it is the humble bus that can have the greatest impact. But buses are unfashionable and are in decline.

The Department for Transport’s annual bus statistics were released yesterday, showing bus use has fallen to the lowest level in a decade. Bus journeys declined by 1.5% in the year to March, to 4.44 billion last financial year. The decline in bus use was particularly pronounced in non-metropolitan areas with there being a 14% decrease in mileage on council-supported services in England outside London.

Bus services are another example of how austerity is impacting on local government. In response to the figures, the Local Government Association called on the government to fully fund the concessionary fares scheme – subsidised to the tune of £200m at least by councils. It also demanded councils be given control over the bus service operators’ grants – a fuel duty rebate currently paid directly to bus operators, in the hope that they could use it to protect vital bus routes.

But it doesn’t just come down to money. As ever, power is the other big factor. Councils have lost the power to coordinate transport, leaving services at the mercy of the private sector. Profit has been the critical factor in determining routes and frequency – not ease for the passenger.

However, there is some (limited) help at hand in the form of the Bus Services Act, which makes it easier for transport authorities to adopt a bus franchising system similar to that in London, whereby operators compete for contracts. It will also help facilitate smart ticketing and for councils to regulate frequency. The powers are available automatically to combined authority mayors but other transport authorities can seek permission from government.

In a speech on Wednesday, Greater Manchester CA mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) said he would begin the process of using the act’s powers by requesting data from bus operators in the city to inform a consultation next summer. He said the free market approach had failed after bus use in the conurbation fell from 350 million journeys in the mid-1980s to under 200 million today. Greater Manchester’s woes were “not just about money” but “failed ideology, policy incoherence and lack of public accountability,” Mr Burnham said.

With the exception of the dramatic expansion of buses in London under Ken Livingstone (Lab), buses have had a lowly status in the minds of policy makers in recent decades. In 1986, the year she deregulated buses, Margaret Thatcher reputedly said that a “man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”. These days it may be more appropriate to say that a person who finds themselves not served by buses may view themselves as a failure because they cannot access opportunity.

A subsidised, coordinated and accountable local transport system is the best way of accessing jobs, housing and skills. Other areas will surely follow Greater Manchester’s example by making the most of the Bus Services Act to help bring this about. However, the loss of subsidy is dramatically reducing opportunity in so many areas.

Ministers, at times in recent years, have been blinded by the excitement of HS2. But they have turned a blind eye to the even greater benefits to be derived from each area having a high-frequency, moderate-cost local bus network.

Nick Golding, editor

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