British attitudes to buses are infected with snobbery. Whether urban or rural local services, or long-distance coaches, these vehicles lack the charisma of planes, trains and automobiles. It’s not hard to see why. Air travel is associated with leisure and exotic destinations. Railways are a cherished part of our heritage. Cars have strong associations with individual freedom and are the most valuable object that most people own apart from their home. Buses, by contrast, are not viewed as technologically exciting. Not coincidentally, they are disproportionately relied on by poorer people, women, children and pensioners.
The consequences of this low status are no less damaging for being predictable. Buses and their passengers struggle to attract the attention of policymakers – or the resources that follow from this. Since services outside London were deregulated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, private operators have become adept at running profitable routes. The problem for local transport authorities and the people they serve is that other services, often in rural areas, require subsidies in order to work.
Local authorities used to fund them. But after a decade of bus budget cuts – £645m in real terms since 2010, according to Labour – the network is in a poor and disjointed state. This has damaging effects on productivity and wellbeing. Buses are urgently in need of a boost. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has grasped this better than most, and has made improvements to buses part of his pitch to less-well-off voters (around two-thirds of bus journeys are made by people whose annual income is below £25,000, with 17% of journeys made by under-16s). Continued cuts, combined with rising fares, leave vulnerable people isolated and unable to access services; 64% of jobseekers either cannot drive or do not have access to a vehicle. Labour’s promise to increase spending on buses by £1.3bn a year, by reallocating vehicle excise duty revenues from road-building, would also have a positive environmental impact. Unless bus services are improved, people cannot be expected to choose them over private cars.
Bigger contributions from central government would undoubtedly make the job of local transport authorities easier. But funding is not the only challenge. Passenger numbers have been falling for decades, while some rural routes are both necessary and underused. Combined authority mayors such as Andy Burnham in Manchester already have significant powers. The 2017 Bus Services Act allowed them to reverse deregulation, subject to certain conditions, and invite companies to bid for specific routes in the same way as currently happens in London. This would turn on its head the current position in most places, where bus companies decide which services to run.
Mr Burnham is keen to create a more joined-up system. An improved transport network, both within and between cities, is a central aim of the whole devolution project. But this is not straightforward. Asked about his plans for Manchester’s buses last weekend, Mr Burnham said that without higher transport subsidies from central government there could be “no northern powerhouse”.
Regional politicians, businesses and newspapers are right to argue for further devolution of powers and resources. The UK is an overly centralised country and damaging inequalities are growing. But while the situation with the buses is part of this bigger picture, tackling it must not be put off. If it is not practical for Mr Burnham to take over Manchester’s bus system straight away, the law allows for partnerships that have been shown in other places to bring improvements. Deregulation put profits before people. Mr Burnham and others must now push back.