Devolution is the Key to Getting Our Buses Back on the Road

Peter Swallow, Chair of Ealing Central and Acton Labour Party and researcher at Durham University

Research carried out by the Labour Party has laid bare the staggering cuts to bus services across England – half of all services have been axed since 2011. And more than 2,000 routes were cut between 2021-2022 alone. It’s an appalling record – a direct consequence of Tory policy, which for too long has been levelling down towns and communities across the UK.

For rural and small-town communities especially, bus routes should not be seen as a profitable business opportunity but as an essential public service. Twice as many people rely on buses as trains, with 69% of all public transport journeys made on the bus. Poor bus services can limit a person’s job prospects, or make it harder for kids to get to school. In the cost of living crisis, high bus fares can spell misery for families already struggling to make ends meet.

Yes, fixing Britain’s railways is important – but rescuing our buses must be a core mission of the next Labour government.

Louise Haigh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, has called out the government’s record on buses as “nothing short of vandalism against our communities”, indicating the “total failure of privatisation”. This summer, she has been travelling up and down the country on local buses to highlight the broken Tory model and set out Labour’s plans, on her Better Buses Tour.

My hometown of Bracknell demonstrates some of the problems local communities face. Bracknell has buses run by four separate operators, each with their own ticketing regimes. Three of those operators are currently signed up to the government £2 fare cap scheme, though confusingly one has opted not to take part. While services in Bracknell town itself are OK, more rural parts of the council area suffer from poor connectivity, and only 34% of local residents have access to a frequent service.

It’s clear we need a new approach. That’s why it’s so important that Labour focuses on devolving public transport, so local people can decide what routes should run in their communities and reduce fares for passengers.

Labour’s landmark report on devolution, led by Gordon Brown and boldly titled ‘A New Britain’, set forth just such a vision for our buses. One key recommendation was to stop Westminster paying grants directly to private companies to run local services – instead, councils would be in control of the funding.

And bus franchising would be expanded across the country, with local councils empowered to set routes, timetables and fares. That’s the model used by Transport for London – and it’s proven incredibly successful. But for too long, London has been alone in reaping the benefits.

One important consideration is how to build in collaboration between council areas. Some of Bracknell’s services are already operated by a locally run bus operator – Reading Buses, which is owned by Reading Borough Council. But because Reading is its own council area, the current system doesn’t give Bracknell much say over these services. Labour’s commitment to “push power as close as possible to people” needs to be flexible, and build collaboration in from the start – something the franchising model is well-suited to.

Local decision-making is vitally important if we are to rebuild public infrastructure. Under a Labour government, local people can get back in the driving seat, and all areas of the country can feel better connected, with a robust and affordable bus network run by the communities who use it.

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