News that Andy Burnham will bring Greater Manchester’s buses into public control is an absolute game-changer for our public transport system.
It’s a huge victory for all those who campaigned for it in Greater Manchester. But it’s also a vital step towards public services being run for our communities, not the shareholders of private companies all across the country, as Greater Manchester has today set a precedent that authorities across the UK can follow.
Ever since Thatcher’s deregulation in the ’80s, our buses have been run almost entirely for profit, with bus companies in control, deciding the fares, routes, timetables, and ticketing on the overwhelming majority of services.
In practice, this means that bus companies cherry-pick the most profitable routes, pocketing millions – and it’s public money that subsidises the socially necessary routes, at a price they set, when the local authority has money to spare.
But over the past ten years, there hasn’t been any money to keep handing out to the bus companies. So they cut and cut, while fares went up. Eight million miles of routes have been cut from Greater Manchester’s network since 2010. Across the UK, fares have gone up by an astonishing 55 percent in the last ten years.
So while around 40 percent of bus companies’ revenue comes from public money, we are left with a horrendous system. If you’re unlucky enough to live somewhere without a profitable bus route, getting to work, seeing loved ones, getting to hospital appointments all become much more difficult.
Meanwhile, the bus companies are laughing all the way to the bank, giving out £1.49 billion to shareholders over the ten years up to 2019. And of course they’ve been bailed out to the tune of over £1 billion in the past year, during the Covid crisis.
While local authorities begged to be given control over grants, so as to direct as much money as possible to the right routes in order to get key workers to work easily, the bus companies were discussing profit maximisation while simultaneously pretending publicly to be hard done by.
In March last year, First Group’s chair said on a call: ‘At the moment, in my experience, this is one of the most exciting times, with potentially real deliverables there and money standing behind it.
‘We are all in violent agreement, is the only thing I can say. Everybody is on the same page in the one direction of maximising shareholder value.’
Andy Burnham‘s decision to bring Greater Manchester’s buses into public control means that bus companies will no longer be in the driving seat. It means local authorities will plan the network and take revenue, so profits from busy routes can subsidise those that are socially necessary.
It will mean that you can have a single ticket you can use across all transport, so we’re not paying over £10 a day for a bus and tram. It will mean the Mayor can set the fares, and they can ensure region-wide minimum pay and conditions for drivers. We can hold our representatives to account and they will set the standards on our behalf.
This is what London has, and it means £1.50 fares, working disabled ramps, 24-hour travel, and green buses. It also means bus companies’ profit margins are halved as they run contracts to our specifications. That’s why Stagecoach tried to put in a legal injunction to prevent this decision, which thankfully failed.
Our communities deserve the absolute best, and today’s decision will mean passengers will get a far better bus service. Andy Burnham’s decision is transformative – and it’s a decision that came off the back of overwhelming public pressure.
He made this decision because amazing passengers and staff from Greater Manchester and all over the UK campaigned for this for years. A broad coalition was pulled together, made up of unions, environmental groups, cycling campaigns, tenants unions, anti-poverty groups, Quakers and community groups that had tried to save local routes.
We met monthly to strategise, thinking on the most effective ways to influence him. We went to every public meeting he had and asked – when are you going to bring buses into public control? We surprised him at meetings of the eleven local authority leaders by bringing passengers who wanted to speak to him about their buses.
We held a public meeting-cum-barnstorm in the first three months, where we got people organised in each local authority to put pressure on their council leader to support the change. And we got creative too – artists directed a musical about the history of buses (with rollerskating actors). We made a fake bus stop and queued outside Burnham’s office for better buses. We made very embarrassing videos to highlight that the bus companies were trying to mislead us.
We tried to get in the press at every point, so that when the consultation came around, we had created a narrative that the bus company spin—with millions behind it—couldn’t cut through. We were clear: passengers deserve better buses, and that means we deserve public control.
When the official consultation came around, the work paid off: over 80 percent said they supported public control. This is thanks to the ringrounds, those who shared the news, and even organised family badge-making sessions to raise awareness.
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This success can be replicated across the country, and amazing campaigners in groups like Get Glasgow Moving and Better Buses West Yorkshire are already doing brilliant work building broad coalitions and getting passengers’ voices heard.
As of last week—when the government’s new national bus strategy came out—it would appear any local authority can apply to begin the process of public control, but combined authorities with an elected mayor have always had the ability to do this.
They also tend to have institutional knowledge of how to manage transport networks, which means there really is no excuse for them not to begin this process.
Our victory in Greater Manchester has shown that when standing together, the public can win a better bus network. Other communities—like West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, the West Midlands, and Glasgow—can win better buses for their regions too, and we intend to support them and other regions.
And while public control of the buses is an important step, it would be far better for the government to lift the ban on councils setting up their own publicly-owned bus companies, so we can kick the private companies out of the system fully. Public control is the best we can get under the current legislation.
Without public control and ownership, the bus companies will continue to run a service for profit, prioritising only the routes that make them the most cash, with more and more public money subsidising their slow transition to a zero carbon fleet.
The reality is that we need great buses now, both for our planet and for our beloved communities to have access to the means to live a rich, fulfilling life.
By Pascale Robinson, originally published by Tribune on 25 March 2021
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