Lift the Public Bus Ban

Since 2017, local councils have been banned from setting up their own municipal bus companies. The government promised to review the ban a year ago – now, with our for-profit public transport in deepening crisis, it's time to deliver.

The flagship National Bus Strategy praised the UK’s remaining publicly owned bus operators, and said that the ban on new municipal ownership was ‘ripe for review’. (bordyug / Getty Images)

A year has now passed since Boris Johnson promised a ‘bus revolution’ aimed at delivering London-style services across the country as ‘one of our first acts of levelling-up’. Unfortunately, the authors of his National Bus Strategy, officially titled ‘Bus Back Better’, have taken about as serious an approach to the nation’s bus crisis as they did to naming their report.

Rather than deliver radical improvements, bus networks have sunk to new depths with  skyrocketing fares, frightening levels of unreliability, and threats to cut up to one in three services. The root cause of these challenges? The inability of privatised networks to run buses as an efficient public service, with the necessary resilience to face our increasingly precarious world—and the prioritisation of shareholders’ interests instead.

To take one example, the pandemic unmasked the industry’s worst kept secret: being a bus driver is becoming less and less bearable. As a survey by Unite the union found: ‘until the bus operators improve pay and conditions and reduce the long hours culture, then drivers will continue to leave and new entrants will be few and far between.’ Rather than take serious action to address the problems with the industry, companies resorted to stealing existing drivers away from their competitors, some even offering £4000 sign-on bonuses.

Thanks to Unite’s new sector-wide industrial strategy, and its success winning inflation-busting pay rises, the flow of drivers leaving the industry may slow for the time being. But this isn’t just an industrial issue: it’s a safety issue. When there aren’t enough drivers to run advertised services, cancellations and late buses increase.

In November, a quarter of services in Doncaster didn’t turn up on time (the legal limit is five percent), putting everyone in the community at risk, from kids travelling back from school to retirees with bus passes leaving the local pub. The consequences can be massive for working people: when the chair of Unite’s Glasgow Hospitality Branch, Caitlin, was left to walk home after the last bus didn’t show and her employer refused to pay for a taxi, she was sexually assaulted.

With the support of her union, Caitlin is leading the fight for employment and transport systems that work working people—but privatisation means there is little we can do to stop operators cutting corners.

It wasn’t always this way. When buses were run by and for the public, passenger safety was a top priority. That meant employing ‘spares’ to wait at the local depot in case services broke down or got gridlocked. These drivers could fire up one of the reserve buses kept on standby—also now a thing of the past—to get the timetable back on track and keep passengers safe.

But a penny-pinching approach, as with the government’s failures over pandemic preparedness, will always fail to build in the slack that public services need to respond to crises. That’s why the awful experiment in bus privatisation must come to an end.

A New Hope

There is now a glimmer of hope. Thanks to the brilliant efforts of the Better Buses for Greater Manchester Campaign, Manchester is well on its way to re-regulating its bus services. That means a London-style system of public control will allow the local authority to set the fares, routes, timetables, and some standards in the public interest, specifying these as the terms of operating services locally. However, the issue remains that those contracts will still be snapped up by private companies.

While re-regulation in one city region is a massive victory, with We Own It-backed campaigns winning victories around Leeds, Sheffield, and Liverpool, too, it only allows us to rein in the worst excesses of privatisation. Regulated networks still allow private operators to cream off a profit from the public. London’s regulated network, for example, pays out an average of £60 million a year in dividends. They are also constantly on the lookout for ways to cut corners within their contracts: London’s regulated network initially saw drastic reductions in pay and conditions for drivers, before contracts were updated to limit those regressions.

That means the next step is to kick out the profit-hungry shareholders once and for all. But there’s the rub: since 2017, and the new Bus Services Act, it has been illegal for English councils to set up a municipal bus company.

Not only does that cut against the principle of ‘empowering people to take control of their lives’—an idea key to Lisa Nandy’s view of levelling up, according to her piece in the Coop Party’s The Pioneer—but it denies councils powers proven to get them closer to London-style services. After all, what good is it asking councils to deliver a bus revolution with one hand tied behind their backs?

Buses are Better in Public Hands

Only nine municipal bus companies have survived since Thatcher’s disastrous decision to deregulate our bus network. Because these bus companies don’t have to pay dividends to shareholders, they can invest more into improving local services. It’s no surprise, then, that they are incredibly popular, with Nottingham City Transport, Reading Buses, and Lothian Buses rating among the highest in the country for passenger satisfaction.

Reading Buses invests an additional £3 million a year into its service, and has one of the greenest fleets in the UK. It has the best passenger numbers outside London, too, with a forty percent jump in just six years.

If the Reading model of public ownership was rolled out across the whole of Britain, it would save well over £500 million a year. That’s money that could be ploughed back into the service, sparking a positive cycle: more passengers, more fares, more investments to improve services, and more people swapping the car for the bus.

And in times of crisis, public ownership can also help insulate the public. In Northern Ireland, the operator Translink, owned and operated by the public, has just frozen fares to protect people from hikes in fuel costs.

The flagship National Bus Strategy praised the UK’s remaining publicly owned bus operators, and said that the ban on new municipal ownership was ‘ripe for review’. Twelve months later, though, that review has yet to appear. Any further delay and England’s buses will wither on the vine.

A year to the day since the Strategy’s launch, We Own It set up a petition calling on Transport Minister Grant Shapps to deliver on the government’s promise. If the government really wants to help level up the country’s buses, it’d prioritise people over profit, and review the ban on publicly owned bus companies—giving communities back the power to run the kind of public transport that serves them properly.