When Jeremy Corbyn used his six questions at Prime Minister’s Questions last July to highlight the devastating impact of Tory cuts to buses, many in Westminster were confounded. Theresa May clearly wasn’t prepared to discuss an issue that is so vital for so many, and she was left shuffling through her briefing papers, searching in vain for some material on her own government’s policy on bus services. As for the commentariat, all they could ask was why Jeremy Corbyn had wasted an opportunity to score some points over the infighting in the Cabinet regarding Brexit.
But why would we expect those who spend all their time in the corridors of Parliament picking apart the latest episode in the psychodrama of the Conservatives’ calamitous handling of Brexit to have a grasp of what life is like for the pensioner who has lost their lifeline to the shops or a social life? When do we hear the stories in the media of the many parents who have to leave home before their children wake up and only get back once their children are asleep? When is the young person who can no longer make it to college in time for half of their classes given any airtime?
The London-based establishment evidently are not aware of their luck in having an inexpensive and reliable bus network, unlike much of the rest of country. This is down to the successful resistance in London against the Thatcher government’s deregulation of bus operations in 1986. London’s franchised services outperform the rest of the country, with local authorities outside London prohibited from intervening in the operation of bus companies in their area. In contrast Transport for London and the Mayor can set routes and fares, which ensures that buses in the capital are run for people not simply profit.
For all their talk about giving local authorities and people more power over their lives, the Conservatives have not only slashed the funding for council budgets that pay for our vital services such as buses, they have also denied local authorities the powers they need to serve their communities. Outside of London it is private companies, rather than passengers and the people they elect to represent them, that decide where and when to run bus services.
More journeys are made on buses than on any other form of public transport, with 4.36 billion journeys made last year. For many people, buses are the only form of public transport they can afford or the only kind anywhere near their home or workplace. It is lower income groups, those with poor access to transport and little ability to cover the costs of owning a car other transport options, for whom poor public transport means fewer life opportunities.
Transport is a foundation for economic prosperity, and a Labour government intent on creating an economy that works for the many will put transport policy at the heart of this transformation, and not allow the neglect of buses to continue.
Academic analysis conducted by Leeds University’s Institute for Transport Studies for its 2012 paper ‘Buses and Economic Growth’ estimates that those who rely on buses to get to work generate £64 billion in economic output every year. Bus services are making a major contribution to the size and efficiency of today’s labour market that has been overlooked for too long.
In addition, bus trips for shopping and socialising are estimated to support a spend of £27 billion per year, with £22 billion spent in town centres. Indeed, high streets, small businesses and jobs across the country depend on buses. They allow our towns and cities to flourish and connect people living in rural areas. But nine years of austerity have left buses in crisis, with the Conservatives cutting funding by £645 million a year in real terms since 2010.
However, austerity has always been a political choice not an economic necessity. The Conservatives used the global financial crash as an excuse to shift wealth away from those who create it to those very few at the top. So it comes as no surprise that despite the fact fares have risen more than twice as fast as wages under the Tories, and bus use has fallen by 11% with fewer places that are served by a bus than any time since the 1980s, this has all occurred while bus firms have paid out £1.5 billion in dividends to shareholders over the past decade.
Last April, we announced our policy to provide funds for free travel for under 25s to local authorities that introduce bus franchising or move to public ownership of their local bus services, in order to support and incentivise local authorities run their bus services for passengers rather profit, and to generate lifelong increases in public transport use among young people.
Today we have set out how a Labour government will reverse in full the Tory cuts to bus services since 2010, and on top of all the bus services that will be reinstated, we will fund as many new bus services.
The £1.3 billion a year cost, enough to reverse over 3,000 route cuts and transform services across England, along with the £1.4 billion a year cost for under 25s free travel, will be paid for by using the money currently scheduled to be hypothecated from Vehicle Excise Duty to a new Roads Fund. The next Labour government will widen this hypothecation to a Sustainable Transport Fund, and continue to fund necessary road building along with other infrastructure projects through the National Transformation Fund that we announced at the last election.
By supporting greater use of public transport, the policy will also help to reduce vehicle emissions and improve air quality. Buses produce just 4% of all CO2 emissions from road transport in the UK, compared with nearly 60% from passenger cars. With scientists forecasting that dangerously over-heated cities will increasingly become a problem, one sensible mitigation measure will be to ensure that people can rely on more efficient public transport such as buses.
Transport policy works best when treated as a whole and within the wider socio-political situation. By taking an integrated approach to transport policy and funding, as Labour will do in government, not only will we redress the impact of austerity, we will also be in a better position to tackle the challenges of air quality, climate change and congestion.
Few things illustrate how out of touch the Tories are better than their attack on buses. Ultimately, their only concern as a government is to protect the profits made by the few at the expense of the many.
Labour will change all this. Whether it’s the NHS, our new National Education Service, or the running of our buses, Labour will always put people before profit.