It is economic insanity that 40 per cent of poorly performing private bus companies’ income comes from the public purse and it must end, says MARTIN MAYER
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the implementation of the Tories ’1985 Transport Act on “D-Day” — October 26 1986.
This a time for anger not celebration — and to call again for our bus and tram services to be brought back under local government municipal ownership where they belong.
This 30-year-long experiment with neoliberal ideology has all but destroyed our once publicly owned integrated networks of bus and tram services.
Today most towns and cities are left with a reduced network, higher fares, low frequencies and many evening, Sunday and non-core services stripped out.
Passenger numbers have plummeted and consequently traffic congestion is now choking our cities. Private bus companies receive up to 40 per cent of their income from the taxpayer yet are subject to no accountability or control.
All the infrastructure including bus stops, bus stations, bus information services, bus lanes and bus priority measures and tram permanent way and electricity power supply are all paid for from the public purse.
This a bad deal for the public and stands as further proof of the failures of privatisation and deregulation to deliver the promises made by the Tory government in the 1985 Act.
Passengers have certainly had a bad deal but bus workers have suffered the most. Unregulated competition led to chaos and destructive practices on our city streets as too many companies sought to undercut each other in battles for control of potentially lucrative core bus corridors.
From 1986 to 1996 profitability was squeezed and bus workers’ wages and conditions declined in real terms more than any other category of worker in Britain. Over that decade bus drivers’ pay fell from 14 per cent above the average pay for manual semi-skilled workers to 7 per cent below that average.
In most conurbations passenger numbers fell by 40-50 per cent over the same period. Bus drivers did not only lose out on pay. As the big multinational companies consolidated their grip on the industry from the mid-1990s onwards, profits were increasingly squeezed out of the business by a combination of higher fares, tighter running times, lower frequencies and labour cost savings. This included attacks on pensions, sick pay, holiday pay entitlements and longer spells of work with fewer breaks.
Municipal ownership of our local public transport is not just a pipe-dream or a throwback to yesteryear. In France more than a dozen municipalities have reversed the privatisation of their public transport networks just in the last five years as it became clear that this would be a cheaper option for the local taxpayer and make the network more accountable.
Here in Britain the few remaining municipal bus companies that have survived — such as Lothian Regional Transport in Edinburgh — provide a model of how bus services should be run: lower fares, more modern fleet, reliable services and profits either ploughed back into the network or back to the local authorities.
Today the Tories implicitly acknowledge the failures of deregulation in their 2016 Bus Services Bill, which will give devolved local government some control back over their local bus networks.
However, this highly flawed legislation aims to strip out the protection for bus workers included in Labour’s 2008 Local Transport Act and — in an act of wild ideological dogma — make it illegal for local government to ever bring back their local passenger networks into municipal ownership.
Unite commissioned research by Ian Taylor, director of Transport for Quality of Life, on the effects of the 1985 Transport Act 30 years on: Building a World Class Bus System for Britain. It concludes that only through municipal ownership can Britain build a local passenger transport system fit for the 21st century.
We desperately need to green our cities, save our environment and reduce deadly pollution from carbon emissions, which can only be achieved by providing an expanding public transport system good enough to attract a modal shift away from the private car.
Market forces, private ownership and the drive to maximise short-term profit have demonstrated over the last three decades that the opposite is the outcome — an ever-shrinking network of over-priced and irregular services forces people to depend on private cars.
Do support We Own It and Transport Quality of Life campaigns for a return to municipal ownership of our local public transport.
Martin Mayer is a Unite Labour NEC member and chair of United Left.