After decades of chaotic and expensive privatisation, local authorities in England have an opportunity to take public control of their local bus systems. They should do so – but Westminster needs to act as well.
Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised and deregulated bus services in England outside London in 1985, prohibiting municipal services and leaving it to private operators to decide which routes to run and how much to charge. It predicted this would lead to “lower fares, new services and more passengers”.
But today, much of the bus sector is in crisis: privatisation has delivered an expensive, unreliable and dysfunctional service. Private operators have profited handsomely, but passengers dependent on buses to get to work, access services and visit loved ones have suffered.
People have lost jobs and benefits, been forced to give up education and sacrificed food
In England, more than 3,000 routes have been cut in the past decade, fares have risen 403 percent since 1987, and ridership outside London has plummeted 38 percent between 1982 and 2016-17. Bus services are fragmented, with multiple operators running uncoordinated routes, each with their own tickets, schedules and maps. And taxpayers fund 42 percent of bus services in England outside London, while operators pay generous shareholder dividends instead of reinvesting in services.
This failing approach has had a severe impact on people’s lives and rights. In a new report, we found that people have lost jobs and benefits, faced barriers to healthcare, been forced to give up on education and sacrificed food and utilities because of a privatised bus service that isn’t working.
This is no way to run an essential service that so many rely on. Buses account for some four billion journeys a year in England. They boost economic growth, help address climate change and alleviate poverty, transporting more people to work than all other forms of public transport combined. A strong bus system is a remarkably effective way to ensure all people can participate in society –whether visiting the local library or community centre, shopping, attending a football match or gathering with family and friends.
There is simply no convincing argument for the current system. We sent a summary of our findings to the Department for Transport and the five major bus operators in the United Kingdom. None responded with a spirited defence of deregulation.
After neglecting the issue for decades, the government this year published a new bus strategy for England, which acknowledges that “services cannot be run on a purely commercial basis without abandoning entire communities”. But it completely fails to address the issues inherent with privatisation, despite decades of evidence that organising a transport sector around profit is not a good way to provide for people’s needs. Instead, the strategy offers lacklustre half-measures that prop up a failing, privatised system.
More fundamental change is needed. With political and financial support, public control or ownership would be more cost-effective and allow for reinvestment of profits, integrated networks, more efficient coverage, simpler fares, consistency with climate goals and public accountability. Regulation in London and municipally owned operators such as in Nottingham and Reading provide impressive counter-examples of what is possible.
Under a 2017 law, combined authorities have the option of adopting a London-style regulated system through franchising. This would allow them to take public control of the bus network, deciding where and when buses operate, how passengers pay for them and what service standards apply. But the current process is complex and difficult, presenting significant barriers that authorities must navigate on their own. Unsurprisingly, none have yet succeeded in doing so. The government has not delivered new guidance on franchising and the formation of municipal bus companies is still banned despite an acknowledgement that this is “ripe for review”.
Encouragingly, Greater Manchester recently announced its intention to re-regulate services, finding it would allow for significant improvements and £345 million in direct economic benefits. The mayor of West Yorkshire has indicated she will move in the same direction. But local authorities should not have to go it alone. The government should simplify the franchising process, remove current barriers and bureaucracy, and provide the necessary financial and political support.
Ultimately, the UK government should follow the evidence, abandon the notion that public transport can be left to the private market, and take responsibility for ensuring buses work. That means legislating minimum service levels, overturning the ban on municipal bus companies and adopting public control of bus transport as the default system. Anything less will not deliver the service people in Britain need and deserve.
Philip Alston is a professor at NYU School of Law and former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Bassam Khawaja and Rebecca Riddell co-direct the Human Rights and Privatization Project at NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. They recently authored a report on the failures of the privatised bus system in Britain.