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A Transport Revolution Requires Public Ownership

This week, the government promised a 'revolution' on England's buses without committing to reverse privatisation – but the real revolution we need to see in our transport system is public ownership.

Two big announcements on public transport policy were made this week.

On 17 March, the Scottish government announced it was going to take the Scotrail franchise into public ownership. This will put an end to the chaotic management of Scotland’s railway which passengers have suffered under for years – management which in 2019 saw passengers plagued by unbelievable delays, cancellations, and overcrowding. From 2022, Scots will be travelling on a publicly owned, publicly run rail network, with the dark days of privatisation behind them.

The Scottish government’s decision follows the Welsh government, which took Wales’ rail services into public hands in February. Joining the Northern franchise and the East Coast Line, huge chunks of the UK’s rail network is now back where it should be – in public ownership. Privatisation is crumbling across the country, and the state is—rightly—stepping in.

The second of those big announcements was the Westminster government’s much vaunted National Bus Strategy. Promising a ‘revolution’ on our buses, this came with a £3 billion price tag and the now familiar language of ‘levelling-up’.

Unsurprisingly, this government’s so-called ‘revolution’ is nothing of the sort, but a revolution is certainly what’s needed. Since Thatcher privatised our buses and deregulated them everywhere outside of London, our bus network has been hollowed out, cut back, and ripped apart. Privatisation has driven this non-stop hacking away at the service. Private bus companies have sought to maximise profits and siphon off as much money as possible to their shareholders.

Millions of miles of routes have been cut by private bus companies looking to reduce costs and increase profits, leaving communities across the country isolated without a service to get them to work, to the hospital, or to see their loved ones. Some bus routes are never going to be profitable, but they are socially necessary. Rural routes that carry a small number of passengers don’t show up well on a balance sheet in the boardroom, but they are a lifeline for the people that use them.

As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Professor Alton highlighted, the provision of transport, especially in rural areas, is ‘an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity’, and ‘abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.’

And as these services have been dropped by cost-cutting companies, bus fares outside London have risen by a staggering 71 percent since 2005. All the while, private bus companies paid out £1.49 billion to shareholders in ten years prior to 2019, and have failed to invest in the crucial steps we need to tackle the climate emergency through getting more people on public transport, and greening the bus fleet.

Boris Johnson’s ‘National Bus Strategy’ has no answers for this. It promises to encourage local councils to engage in ‘partnerships’ with private bus companies. All this means is councils asking nicely for improvements on the bus service, with no obligation for the private operators to play ball. The private companies still hold all the cards. If local authorities want to push for more routes, better environmental standards, or lower fares, the private bus companies can turn around and say no as they please.

Moreover, the government’s bus strategy doesn’t address one of the most pernicious elements of public transport policy that’s hampered our buses for years. At present, in England, there is a ludicrous ideological ban on local councils establishing their own publicly owned bus companies. The government’s latest plans provide no commitment to overturning this ban, as the Scottish government did in 2019.

While Scotland and Wales are leading the way on the move towards a public transport system built with passengers, rather than private profit, in mind, Westminster is clinging to a failing system. In reality, despite the eye-catching £3 billion investment, despite the rhetoric, and despite the claims that the government would be finally taking action to improve our ailing bus network, the ‘National Bus Strategy’ offers more of the same: more of passengers’ money leaking out to shareholders, and more of private companies—rather than democratically-elected councils—dictating how our buses operate.

If the government were in any way serious about ‘levelling-up’ or about creating a ‘revolution’ on our bus network, they’d have taken the obvious decision to end the ban on publicly owned bus companies. If our buses were publicly owned and run at a municipal level, we’d save £506 million every single year. That would be enough to fund a massive fare cut for passengers, or to get over 1,300 new electric buses into the country’s fleet. We could have an affordable bus service with world-class infrastructure fit for the twenty-first century. This is the case in the few cities we still have publicly run buses – like Nottingham, which is pioneering the use of green buses.

As the need to take meaningful action on the climate emergency becomes ever more urgent, we desperately need a public transport policy that gets even more people onto our buses and out of their cars. We won’t deliver that so long as we have a free-market wild west where private companies remain in the driving seat. We’ll only get it by ending the ban on publicly owned bus companies, and by our councils taking control of what is one of our most vital public services.

That’s what a real ‘revolution’ on our buses would look like – a public transport system that works for passengers, the public, and for the planet.