We need a better deal on the buses

by Amanda Ramsay

Last week Amanda Ramsay won the “top of the policies” vote at Pragmatic Radicalism’s future of transport event, chaired by Maria Eagle MP, shadow transport secretary. The winning proposal was for a “Better Deal on the Buses”, to bring buses under a new regulatory framework.

Having worked in four UK cities: Bristol, Manchester, Plymouth and London; I have seen first-hand the huge differences in public transport available in different parts of the country. As a Bristol resident and campaigner, the contrast with London is nothing short of shameful.

Decent, affordable bus services are essential for any sense of social mobility and access to health care, jobs, leisure facilities, shops and family and friends, but too often are expensive and not efficient enough in terms of routes and regularity.

Bus route availability and costs in cities like Bristol and Glasgow could be overseen and controlled by the local authority and elected representatives, in a similar way Transport for London runs the capital’s bus system, where residents are well served across the whole city and pay just £1.35 a journey using Oyster, a pre-charged electronic swipe card. Prices are also capped.

In Bristol, it is often cheaper to get a taxi than to hop on a bus, for a family or group of friends. This is crazy, especially, for a city with bad air quality from high car usage with higher than average asthma rates, stemming from its basin-like geographical location. This is an environmental issue as well as a social policy imperative.

Looking forward to 2015, we need to demand a better deal on the buses; a better, cheaper, more efficient bus system that is all about social mobility and getting Britain working.

Transport is a critical Labour issue, for working and non-working people alike and must be about empowering and enabling communities. It’s one thing to demand job creation and encourage the long term unemployed into work, but people need to be able to reach their place of work easily, cheaply and at times that suit their shifts.

With Labour’s transport policy review well underway, Maria Eagle as shadow secretary of state for transport has promised Labour will find extra resources for transport, by being tough with the vested interests in the train and bus companies, not by seeking extra resources from the treasury. From the woman who once took her own employers to a tribunal, a law firm at that, I’d suggest private companies who prioritise profit over people take heed.

Looking to 2015 and beyond, Eagle promises to bring the bus network, outside London, back under some form of democratic control, as it is already in the capital city.

Labour’s transport lead for Bristol city council, explains more about the challenges on the ground: “Labour achieved much in the Blair/Brown governments but needed to show more vigour in challenging officials and the traditional ways of evaluating proposals,” Cllr Mark Bradshaw says.

“But outright bus re-regulation would bankrupt Bristol at a time of £75 million cuts across council budget. That’s just a non-starter. Cuts are impacting on frontline services, tough choices are being made but the council needs to target limited resources wisely. But bus services must be reliable, affordable and connected.”

Labour legislated for local authorities to be able to demand more powers in the 2008 Transport Act. Through the creation of an integrated transport authority (ITA) Bristol could do so much more.

“Bristol has such tight boundaries, the city needs to form an ITA with our immediate neighbours and partner on integrated transport systems, such as South Gloucestershire. But it must be bureaucratic light and policy smart,” Bradshaw spells out.

Senior member of the transport Select Committee Graham Stringer MP agrees with ITAs and more bus regulation. He says: “West Yorkshire wants a Quality Bus Contract Scheme (QBC) which will make bus operators more accountable to Council Tax-payers. Transport minister Norman Baker should support this.”

Maria Eagle is similarly clear on the importance of a local, strategic approach to transport.

“Many communities feel that they have little influence over the local transport on which many depend,” she tells me.

“Labour’s policy review has heard how we should have been more willing to tackle the consequences of the Tories’ disastrous privatisation of the rail industry and deregulation of bus services outside London. Passengers have been left frustrated by the lack of any influence in decisions over services and fares. Many increasingly feel ‘priced off’ public transport with consequences for their quality of life as well as for congestion and the environment.

“I am clear that we need a new approach to enable people to have a real influence over the local transport services on which they depend. I want to see the rest of England benefit from London-style powers to manage bus and train services in the way that can make integrated transport a reality. It’s time that fares and services were agreed not with profits but with passengers in mind. A real commitment to devolving powers and funding over transport will require a cultural change away from the ‘Whitehall knows best’ approach.

“It will mean being willing to take on the vested interests in the private train and bus companies that benefit from the current system.

“It is clear that without greater support to intervene in the local bus market, take responsibility for local and regional rail services and make the strategic decisions over investment in major local transport schemes, communities will not be able to match London’s ability to deliver high quality reliable and affordable integrated transport networks.”

Eagle describes her proposals as representing “the biggest devolution of power in transport since Barbara Castle in the late 70s”.

For Bristol it can’t happen soon enough.

Amanda Ramsay is development officer for Bristol South CLP and a former Labour Councillor

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7 Responses to “We need a better deal on the buses”

  1. Alex Burrows says:

    Well said Amanda!

    The buses are absolutely vital for many people. Here in the West Midlands conurbation (with some areas of our conurbation having more than 30% of households with no access to a car) buses are a vital lifeline for people to get to jobs, skills, health and all other aspects of our daily lives.

    We have looked on enviously as the London bus network (like everything else) has seen vast amounts of money and additional powers pumped in to make the buses a success while the rest of us have had to muddle on as best we can.

    I have written in various places on this and on the very welcome words in the Transport Policy Review that Labour’s transport team published last week.

    As the strategy lead for Centro, the ITA for the West Mids conurbation, I know we would strongly support further ITAs being established and Bristol should certainly have an ITA that could lead the charge for local control over buses and over a South West rail franchise as well (with collaborative powers to work with the wider West Country and also South Wales).

    Just give us a shout if you want any further info from the West Midlands experience…

  2. Alex,

    You be pleased and, given our past conversations about Birmingham, unsurprised to learn that I was a forceful backer of Amanda’s idea at the event.

    You taught me all that I know on these issues.

    But now more and more are seeing the light, it would seem.

    All best, Jonathan

  3. swatantra says:

    I’m also in favour of an ITA. Its about time local communities had some real power instead of being used as just a sounding board in a futile consultation exercise.
    The Co-operative Party has made suggestions along similar lines, greater community involvement , greater user involvement, and its worthwhile Labour taken these on board.

  4. Beleben says:

    What makes you think that integrated transport authorities represent local communities?

  5. swatantra says:

    I think the answer is in democratic control, and regulation and not allowing the private companies to rule the roost. Local people having a say, and cross border partnerships because buses don’t just come to a stop at borders.
    ‘ …. Eagle promises to bring the bus network, outside London, back under some form of democratic control …. ‘
    Whether that promise is kept remains to be seen. For example Labour refused to turn back the tide on Housing Right to Buy and refused to build more homes and on phasing Immigration from E Europe, and Re Nationalialisation of Transport and Utilities, and didn’t bringing back Manufacturing, to name but a few.
    Words are fine,; more impressive are actions.

  6. Paul says:

    Hello: first comment here. Former Labour member, returning to the fold…

    Amanda – great article. Perhaps there’s an underlying matter here, in that the devolution of transport is patchy across the UK.

    TFL is an excellent model because it brings all modes of transport together, making it easy to see that congestion charging helps to pay for bus improvements, and so on. But, why is there no “Transport for Cumbria”, “Transport for Somerset” et al? If an integrated model works for London, then perhaps we need to get a move on and roll it out elsewhere.

    The nearest non-London examples are the Public Transport Executives (PTEs) – Centro, Merseytravel, Nexus etc. But, even they don’t have the same powers as TFL, because they don’t control the roads or taxis, making funding public transport improvements something of a – dare I say it – postcode lottery.

    I’d like to see a robust plan for a Transport for Everywhere 🙂 – pro-active, local, integrated transport governance. Can we do it?

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