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How Bus Privatisation Screwed Post-Industrial Britain

Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of bus services compounded the damage of deindustrialisation by severing transport links and isolating communities. Reversing her legacy means taking buses back into public hands.

Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

County Durham, the home of the marras, has a rich tapestry of working-class heritage, celebrated every year at the beloved Durham Miners Gala. The county, full of ex-mining communities like mine, was decimated by Thatcherism and bled dry by austerity — a decline that left many communities without industry and cut off from their wider regions. 

The devastating legacy of deindustrialisation is well known. But another Thatcher-era policy deserves much greater blame for the social and economic deprivation experienced across the region and others like it: the deregulation of bus services. 

Before 1986, local authorities regulated or owned bus services, deciding routes and timetables and setting fares. The Thatcher governments Transport Act changed that, handing control to the private sector, which it promised would deliver ‘lower fares, new services, and more passengers’. What followed was soaring fares, the removal of thousands of services, and plummeting patronage. 

Outside London, which resisted deregulation, bus fares increased by more than a third in real terms, passenger journeys fell by more than a third, and connectivity drastically declined. This was a national disaster, one felt particularly acutely in more rural, post-industrial communities.   

The closure of pits and factories across County Durham turned former mining villages into dormitory towns, with people forced to travel to cities for work as part of the transition towards a service-based economy. At the same time, the deregulation of buses resulted in transport links being severed, with services reduced or axed altogether.  

Take the town of Consett. The closure of its steelworks in 1980 resulted in over 3,500 job losses, meaning people in and near the town would have to travel to Newcastle for employment. The nearby MetroCentre, one of Europe’s largest shopping centres, is one such employer.  

Within Burnopfield, in the area I represent, some routes avoid the village all day until the early evening, while some stop after 4pm, leaving residents with a 30-minute walk to the neighbouring villages to catch a bus. The profit-before-people decision-making behind privatised transport leads to such ludicrous timetables and service routes, which in turn, ultimately fails residents and the local economy.

Residents now describe how scarce and unreliable services mean that a cancelled bus or a missed stop can be the difference between getting to work or not. For many places across County Durham, since deregulation, the simple task of reaching a workplace has become arduous and sometimes outright impossible.  

In Tribune, RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch recently described well-run public transport as a tool of liberation for working-class communities. A review produced by NatCen Social Research for the Department for Transport in 2019 shows he’s right. The report found that those on low incomes are more likely to be dependent on buses and more likely to turn down jobs due to transport-related concerns. It also highlighted how such difficulties are compounded in rural communities.  

Before deregulation and privatisation, the profits from the most popular bus routes were used to subsidise commercially unprofitable but socially valuable routes. Under our privatised and deregulated system, private bus companies, many of them foreign-owned, profit from popular routes and axe the rest. Local authorities are left to pick up the pieces, paying private companies to run socially valuable routes. Many councils simply do not have the cash.  

The decline that began with deregulation has been accelerated by austerity. More than one in four bus routes in county and rural areas have vanished over the last decade, with passenger numbers dropping to a historic low. The rationale behind the reduction in services is always cost-saving, with no regard for the wider social and economic benefits of connectivity. 

70 percent of our buses in the UK are owned by just five bus companies. In effect, we have replaced a publicly owned monopoly for the good of the people with an oligopoly that screws over passengers at home and transfers profits abroad. 51 percent of the Go-Ahead Group, which has a monopoly on services in the area I represent as a Labour councillor, is owned by the Australian Kinetic Group. The other 49 percent is owned by the Spanish Globalvia.  

Put simply, privately run travel, particularly in rural areas, doesn’t work. Operating services solely on their profitability, without any consideration of the wider economic benefits for the region, inevitably leads to communities feeling disconnected and left behind, thereby furthering their decline.

The alternative – publicly owned transport, run for the betterment of a region – is the only route forward to connect communities like mine. On top of that, it’s popular. When I speak with residents in my area, they often talk fondly of the former Northern General Transport Company, its accessibility, its people-focused priorities. Reading Buses, Transport for Edinburgh, and Nottingham City Transport – some of the only remaining publicly owned bus companies in the country – are appreciated by residents and outperform their privatised competition.  

Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has recently shown a way forward, using powers available to Metro Mayors in urban areas to bring services back into public control. It is time to adopt those principles in rural areas, too. If Labour is to win back the ground weve lost in rural communities and reverse the deprivation many of them experience, we must reverse privatisation, deregulation, and the endless pursuit of profit, and replace them with principles that work in the favour of people.