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The Scandal of Britain’s Privatised Buses

A new report exposes how privatised buses have cost people jobs and benefits, cut them off from schools and healthcare, and deepened isolation – it's time to end the scandal and bring them into public ownership.

A new report has produced damning findings about Britain's privatised bus network. (Credit: Paul Ryan)

‘Incompatible with human rights law.’ Those are the damning words of UN Rapporteur Philip Alston in his assessment of Britain’s privatised buses. Laid out in a new report, this is an apt description of a 35-year long policy which has devastated our bus network.

Buses matter. For millions of people they are the primary—sometimes even sole—means of accessing employment, education, healthcare, social activities – the basic necessities of a good life. When the buses aren’t working it’s more than a mere inconvenience. It’s about children not getting equal access to school. It’s about rural communities being cut off from their friends and family. It’s about people being unable to find work. It’s about patients not getting to vital medical appointments.

Alston’s report sets this out in stark terms. Based on interviews with people across Britain—including disabled people, older people, and those on low incomes—he and his co-authors have found that Britain’s broken, unreliable, and delay-ridden bus network has led to people losing jobs, being cut off from Jobseekers’ Allowance, and missing health appointments.

For Alston, this is a basic question of human rights. The right to work, healthcare, social security, and even food are being ill-served by our buses. Faced with skyrocketing fares and routes being cut left, right, and centre, Alston’s report concludes that people are unable to access these basic rights.

That’s why problems with transportation are estimated to account for ten percent of missed hospital outpatient appointments. It’s why almost 300,000 children cannot reach a secondary school within 30 minutes by public transportation. And it’s why 19 percent of workers had turned down a job because of the quality of bus services.

How did we get here? These skewed priorities have been present since 1985, when Thatcher privatised the buses and deregulated them everywhere outside of London. In keeping with the ideological vogue of her government, this was touted as a means through which to combat declining bus use, through supposedly incentivising innovation through competition between private companies.

But Alston et al are clear: rather than driving improvements for passengers, the problems on our bus network begin and end with privatisation. Their report confirms what millions of bus users already know from their own direct experience: when bus services are run for profit, they fail to prioritise the needs of their passengers, instead operating in the interests of their shareholders. In Alston’s words, ‘the very act of running a bus service for profit in a deregulated system introduces distorting commercial incentives that are in direct opposition to providing a better service.’

It’s no wonder Alston draws this conclusion. Under privatisation, fares in England have risen on average by an astonishing average of 403 percent since 1987. Millions of miles of bus routes have been cut. Drivers have faced repeated attacks on their workers’ rights and employment standards, most recently through the disgraceful tactic of fire and rehire.

This is no accident. Rising costs, falling standards and a diminishing service are hardwired into the DNA of privatisation. Centring profit maximisation rather than service delivery at the heart of a public service necessitates this, and it’s a familiar tale not only on our buses, but in our railways, energy, and water, too.

This report should be a wake up call for bus policy. Privatisation has ravaged our buses – and its consequences for people’s lives are real and clear.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t appear to have realised this. While its National Bus Strategy acknowledges some of the problems on the bus network, it fails to join the dots and make the connection between inadequate services and privatisation. Its recommendations offer nothing more than cosmetic changes, clinging doggedly to the failed system of privatisation that is the root of the problem.

Johnson’s government’s solution is to maintain the status quo in all but name, encouraging local councils to engage in ‘partnerships’ with private bus companies. In practice, what this means is a mechanism for councils to ask for improvements on the bus service, with no requirement for the private operators to oblige. Private bus companies remain in the driving seat, free to keep putting up their fares, keep cutting routes, and keep delivering a shoddy service.

As Alston highlights, under privatisation, ‘the public good has suffered, the private sector has profited handsomely.’ It’s time for that to end. It’s time for the public good to be prioritised. It’s time for a bus network that is run truly in the interests of passengers, not private profit.

Our bus network needs a complete overhaul, with private profit ripped out of the system, not more of the same and tinkering round the edges. It’s the only way we’ll get that bus network we need – that gets children to school, that gets patients to their medical appointments, that gets people to work.

‘Public ownership or control would allow for profits to be reinvested, network integration, more efficient coverage, simpler fares, and public accountability.’ That’s Alston’s verdict. If Boris Johnson and the government were serious about tackling the issues on our bus network, they would be taking heed.