Nottingham’s Buses Show that Public Ownership Works

Since Thatcher's Transport Act in 1985, Nottingham is one of the few cities whose bus routes have remained in public ownership. The result? A satisfaction rate far above the national average.

Beyond Robin Hood or the equally legendary Brian Clough, it’s unusual to hear of Nottingham entering into public discourse. My hometown is rarely regarded as a city with much to offer – a sentiment I was inclined to agree with as a teenager.

Growing up here, it felt like we were on the periphery of larger northern cities like Leeds, Sheffield, and Manchester, but still a two-hour train journey from the capital. The seemingly well-positioned Midlands—literally the centre of the country—had a frustrating sense of remoteness to it.

However, as I reached my late teens, I began to acknowledge some of Nottingham’s offerings. There is plenty to the city, with its budding independent nightlife, beautiful River Trent, manageably sized city centre, and its interconnectedness – made possible by an incredibly well-functioning bus service.

Outside of London, it’s hard to come by anywhere with an almost fully council-run bus system that serves the people well. This malaise has its roots in Margaret Thatcher’s 1985 Transport Act, which committed to drastic reductions of national bus ownership. In one fell swoop, Thatcher’s law decisively smashed public control over bus services and slashed existing government subsidies to public transport administrators.

Thatcher’s legacy on the buses has outlived her, and private sector domination of bus routes has had an extremely damaging effect on the powers of local authorities to plan routes, regulate prices, or create greener systems. The past decade of austerity has only increased that problem. Since 2010, at least 3,000 bus routes have been lost as local authority subsidies collapsed by 45 percent. And as bus use falls on a national level, car and van traffic has inevitably risen.

The ramifications of these afflictions are most evident in the urban centres of northern England. When I moved to Leeds in 2017 to study, my appreciation for Nottingham’s transport routes was amplified. In my three years as a student, bus prices constantly fluctuated, always in the wrong direction – and although I rarely needed to navigate beyond Hyde Park, explorations to the outskirts of the city always proved extremely difficult, with constant lateness and cancellations.

That wasn’t a massive issue for a day-tripping student, but the frustration felt by communities living outside of the city centre is easy to imagine. Anger from people reliant on public transport has bubbled over in the recent past, leading to city-wide outcries. In one instance, a Leeds bus driver took to Reddit to urge the public not to vent their frustration at drivers, but at the real problems: employee shortages and lack of infrastructure, to name but two.

Trade unions and community groups have taken it upon themselves to tackle these municipal downfalls. The Sheffield and Leeds branches of ACORN, in correspondence with Yorkshire and Humber TUC, have started campaigning for a transit system that works for both driver and rider. While progress has been made in Sheffield, with Mayor Dan Jarvis agreeing that the change is necessary, campaigning in Leeds has been halted due to the pandemic.

Fortunately, Nottingham has escaped the anguish that comes with a poorly-connected city. Nottingham City Transport (NCT), the largest local authority-owned operator in England, has a satisfaction rate far above the national average. Despite many attempts to buy it out, the council has retained almost 82 percent of ownership. Although NCT is majority-owned by the council, it still must operate at ‘arm’s length’, a lasting requirement of the Transport Act.

Through this law, other limitations are forced on the council, notably having to allow companies who wish to rival it with appropriate licenses to begin commercial services at any fare. But with a stronghold over the city’s buses, the council can prevent the mass commercialisation of routes, and while private companies still operate, they do so on a far smaller scale than the likes of First in Leeds.

The results are positive and clear. On punctuality, NCT scored 84 percent, compared to the national average of 74 percent; on value for money, NCT scored 79 percent compared to 64 percent nationally. In the Nottingham Bus Strategy of 2020-25, it was estimated that the NCT bus system carries around 83 million passengers across Greater Nottingham each year.

Buses are not just vessels to transport someone from one location to another, but an instrument on which livelihoods are moored. An affordable bus system is indispensable for social mobility, for low-paid workers without access to a car, and for economic prosperity. Buses keep the workforce running and offer access to social interaction for many, including pensioners and the unemployed.

Despite the Tories and Labour’s right-wing claim that competition is healthy, it tends to be these people—some of the worst-off and most marginalised in our society—that pay the real cost of private competition in essential services. This is why Nottingham became the first city to introduce a Smart Card to offer discounted, unlimited travel, as well as a vast list of concessionary prices and a weekend night bus operating until after 3am – something which certainly contributed to a growing affinity to my hometown in my late teens.

Moreover, growth in the use of public transport remains a central priority for environmental campaigners, and is a much-needed prerequisite to greening the British economy. NCT buses have made strong commitments to reducing emissions and cleaning up Nottingham’s air. In 2019, an NCT engineering director noted that 53 Bio-Gas double-decker buses were already operating in Nottingham, with a further 67 to join the fleet throughout 2019/20.  Furthermore, Nottingham City Council owns CT4N’s electric bus fleet, which consists of 13 ‘BYD Saloon’ buses and 45 ‘Optare Solo and Versa’ minibuses.

These are ideas that can be adopted and broadened out by even half-ambitious Labour councils, let alone what was offered in Labour’s 2019 election manifesto. For the first time in a generation, that programme laid out a vision of a bus system that served the interests of the majority of people outside of London. Characterised by then-shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald as ‘highly ambitious’, Corbyn’s Labour hoped to reverse the fallout of 40 years of transport privatisation by handing back power to local authorities.

It would be foolish for Keir Starmer to give up the commitment to this. As a result of Labour’s 2019 election defeat and Whitehall’s chaotic approach to lockdown, the past year has seen increasing demands for devolution. A municipalised transport strategy could potentially go some way towards rectifying the destruction of the past decades, creating a transport system worthy of the twenty-first century.

In this regard, my hometown provides a leading light. With a degree of political will, Nottingham’s transport success can be replicated – and should be taken further still.