“Building a World Class Bus System for Britain”

Published by Transport for Quality of Life Download here (7 Mb)

This new report should be essential reading for campaigners in progressive organisations such as Momentum. Before discussing its contents let me explain why.

I believe that transport, and buses in particular, links more progressive
campaign themes than any other issue.

Transport is built into modern society to the extent that withdrawal of facilities seriously restricts the extent to which many people can participate in society — well beyond levels which would send groups such as LGBT and disabled people straight to their lawyers to seek redress.

If people can’t get to work or shops then they don’t contribute to society economically; if they can’t meet people they don’t contribute socially or politically; social isolation leads to deterioration of health (as may lack of access to healthy food outlets); and so on.

TfQLIf people react to this situation by becoming dependent on cars a whole raft of other evils emerges: constant noise, danger and air pollution; climate change; urban sprawl; inhibition of active travel leading to health problems — many motorists don’t even do the equivalent of a walk to the bus stop; and so on.

There are also quality of life issues such as access to the countryside and to our heritage — both natural and human made.

And serious social equity issues are bound to arise when only a tiny fraction of available housing is both affordable and sufficiently well connected to avoid the need for large scale car dependence.

For all these reasons it should surely be a fundamental human right that people living in communities should have access to public transport. When these communities lie in urban areas such as Cambridge, or new developments where the highest possible standards should be built in, this transport should be available from early morning to late evening 7 days a week.

This sets the stage for the report. Its key recommendation is that we need to move towards a London style procurement system for bus networks as soon as possible. It then goes beyond this to recommend that services should be provided by publicly owned municipal operators rather than private companies.

The report is backed up by a wealth of data. Bus users gave their thoughts about what a bus system should provide, and these were consolidated into a 16 point charter. It was then shown how the majority of the objectives were simply unobtainable under the present system, but all of them could be achieved under a London style procurement system.

The report also argues that much of the public money currently used to support buses ends up in the pockets of the operators rather than having delivered public benefit. It is estimated that the “leakage” of funds in this way is well above what has been taken out of the bus system since 2010 by a combination of local authority cuts, reduction of Bus Services Operator Grant (which used to be called Fuel Duty Rebate), and tightening up on concessionary travel.

Looking beyond the report, there is no shortage of funding for transport as a whole, but it is being spent in the wrong way. As well as subsidy leakage as described above, there are extravagant road schemes such as our A14 which will almost certainly make things worse in the long run by encouraging traffic growth; and the throwing of money on capital schemes such as the Cambs Guided Busway and the City Deal before we have secured the basics of a comprehensive transport network. So why are we scrimping on things like basic bus provision (as well as issues such as potholes and street lighting) ?

Even if the report does turn out to be optimistic about the extent of savings from returning to a regulated bus system, there are other sources of funding which should be considered. For example there’s road user charging. In recent years the cost of motoring has plummeted and there’s no reason why motorists can’t contrbute more towards our overall transport system. Powers already exist for a workplace parking levy, which would encourage employers to choose sites which their workforce could get to without having to drive, and which could also raise money for supporting public transport. A similar levy on supermarket parking would help save our towns and local shops from superstore competition. Even a 50p per week charge on concessionary pass holders (with buses continuing to be free at the point of use) would raise enough money to bring buses in counties such as Cambs back to the service levels which resulted from New Labour’s Rural Transport Grant a decade or so ago. Most passholders would be prepared to pay more than this rather than lose their buses altgoether, as is now happening in many areas.

I think that the main weakness of the report is that it doesn’t adequately address the urgency of the current crisis. On top of local authorities like Cambridgeshire that have already cut bus support to the bone, many others are currently planning draconian cuts. We need interim funding to keep services going and pay for restoration packages while we reform the underlying system to make our network more effective.

Rumours are that the Government’s forthcoming Buses Bill will enable cities like Manchester and Bristol to move towards London style procurement. But will it soread these improvements to smaller cities such as Cambridge and to rural areas ? Will local authorities that are currently uninterested in public transport change their tune and be given guidelines on how to make the best of the new system ? Are we prepared to upset the present bias against revenue as against capital spending ? These are the questions that need to be answered before we can say confidently that we are on the road to a better transport future.

Simon Norton 28 Jan 2016

 

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