Pascale Robinson from The Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign argues that re-regulating our bus services would improve our health, environment and economy. Better Buses are putting on a film and Q&A session at Bolton Socialist Club, Friday 22 March, 8 till 10pm.

“The public ownership of rail, better control of bus services and investment in active in active travel are key to delivering a public transport system which will drive down carbon emissions.”

Andy McDonald, Shadow Transport Minister said yesterday, in an announcement about Labour’s vision for transport under his leadership. He went on:

“Our buses are a free for all, with private bus companies deciding where there will and where there won’t be bus services. They prioritise what will best serve their shareholders, with the needs of local people coming a poor second.”

This could not have been more evident than in early March when clean air proposals for Greater Manchester came out, including a plan to ask bus companies in the region to contribute £100 a day for every old, polluting bus they put on the streets. Sounds necessary considering we have an air pollution crisis and its is estimated 1,200 people in Greater Manchester are dying every year from it, right?

Greater Manchester has the highest rates of emergency admissions to hospital for asthma in the whole country. Many understood that bus companies were finally being forced to do something about the air pollution they have helped to create by not providing clean and green buses.

However, some bus companies instead decided to label charges on old buses a ‘passenger tax’, ‘an added burden on those who will ultimately pay and may not be able to afford it’.

But wait a second. Bus companies don’t need to pass these charges onto us as passengers. Don’t they just need to upgrade their fleet as soon as possible to improve the health of our city region? Their labelling it a ‘passenger tax’ is a disingenuous trick designed to make us think that we have to pay for their inaction.

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Last year, Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s pre-tax profits were up. Yet, rather than taking from the £17.6 million in profits that they made last year, up 14% on the year before, they have instead said that they will pass this ‘tax’ onto passengers’ fares. They make a point of highlighting that this will be passed on by them to “especially those in the more deprived communities we serve”.

We know this is more of the same: bus companies profit off ever worsening services, and now, even our local and central government’s attempts to deal with dirty and harmful pollutants in our air. One passenger, in response to Stagecoach saying it was ‘disappointed’ in GM’s plans, said on twitter:

“Nope. What’s really disappointing is that you put huge profits and shareholder dividends before the health of the people. We all have a role to play in reducing harm and that includes you. Step up.”

While we think that tackling car usage should be a priority, we also have a bus network that is not up to scratch. Bus companies have to be forced to provide a fleet that does not harm us, because they have not volunteered to. Simple as that. Some will rightly highlight that cars need to be part of the mixture too, and we agree. As Friends of the Earth Manchester outlines:

“The UK must phase out high polluting diesel and petrol vehicles, more rapidly than the government propose – by 2030, rather than 2040. There must also be a government-led scrappage scheme to help people move away from the most polluting vehicles (with car club membership and alternatives to driving such as rail season tickets being offered), and motor manufacturers who have contributed to the UK’s air pollution crisis should be made to cough up to help fund such a scheme.”

This is a public health emergency and it needs a thorough and urgent response. That doesn’t take away from the fact that our buses are well behind London’s publicly controlled bus fleet and we have to clean them up as soon as possible. According to IPPR North’s report Atmosphere: Towards a proper strategy for tackling Greater Manchester’s air pollution crisis.

“Greater Manchester has one of the most polluting bus fleets of any city in the UK.

“Urgent action needs to be taken concerning Greater Manchester’s heavily polluting bus fleet. In GM over 20 per cent of all buses fall into the most polluting Euro 2–3 emission standard – in London this figure is just 12 per cent. In London 37 per cent of all buses are electric or meet Euro 6 standards, in Greater Manchester this is just 10 per cent.”

While these figures came out in 2016, broadly the picture has not changed. What has happened in fact is bus companies have received millions of pounds of public money to get them to clean their fleet, with Stagecoach recently getting £6.9m to clean their fleet, and First receiving anther £2million. The public purse foots the bill for bus companies’ refusal to provide buses that keep our air healthy, ensuring shareholder dividends can be kept high. 40% of bus companies revenue is public money, and 10% of this public money is leaked as shareholder dividends every year, yet they’re not even providing a sufficient service. This is why 76% of us in Greater Manchester want our buses to be regulated.

Andy McDonald in his speech yesterday rightly noted:

“Stronger regulation will also help achieve better value for money and productivity from public investment in transport… How ludicrous is it that you would have disparate modes of transport, in private hands, running in competition with each other? What is the sense of that?”

We need to be able to demand more of bus companies, through public control, as London and Jersey have, as transport is an essential public service.

London’s Mayor and Transport for London, as the bodies responsible for their regulated network, have been able to force bus companies to provide better buses for passengers and staff. As in a regulated network, you set the standards for what you want on the streets, what you pay drivers, the colour of the bus, almost everything.

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Andy Burnham said, when addressing bus companies who said they would pass on the charges. “If you’re going to come here and make quite big profits off the travelling public in GM, it is not too much for us to ask you to put on buses in our city streets that don’t harm the health of our children.”

We shouldn’t forget that the reason we have so many cars on the street is that people increasingly have needed a car to get around and be dependable people in society.

With 8 million miles of routes cuts from GM’s network since 2010, and fares having gone up by 55%, so many of us have turned to cars. The Centre for Labour and Social Studies estimates that 6.7% of households in the UK experience forced car ownership and just over half of those in forced car ownership, were in arrears for unpaid utility bills.

We need to be able to compel bus companies to provide a clean, frequent and affordable bus service, as London’s publicly controlled network has been able to demand successfully, with even bigger plans yet. We want buses that don’t harm our bodies, and shareholder fat cats should pay for them, not passengers. They’re the ones who are taking money out of the network – not us. It’s time they put something back in.

A regulated bus network allows us to demand more of our services across the board, and the air pollution crisis is just another example of bus companies slacking on their duties to the public. To achieve sustainable, thriving and healthy places, where we can access opportunities, and our loved ones, we need a better bus network that is publicly controlled. Andy Burnham, the time is now.

Pascale Robinson

Pascale Robinson is a member of the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign

Better Buses are putting on a film and Q&A session at Bolton Socialist Club, Friday 22 March, 8 till 10pm

Read: ‘Critical for a liveable, prosperous and sustainable city’: Manchester City Council leader weighs in on bus reform

Read: 76% in favour of re-regulating bus services in Greater Manchester poll results show

Feature image: Wikipedia Commons

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