Boris Johnson’s ‘bus revolution’ leaves Yorkshire in slow lane – Matthew Topham

BORIS Johnson has announced a supposed “revolution” of our bus network that would continue the “levelling-up agenda”.

Will Boris Johnson’s proposed bus ‘revolution’ benefit Yorkshire - or not?

For Yorkshire, the truth is it’s anything but. The admission that we need a “revolution” in the way our buses work is welcome news. In West Yorkshire buses make up two-thirds of public transport journeys.

Across our region, they are fundamental to our local economies while providing residents with the opportunity to access jobs and educational opportunities or visit our loved ones.

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However, over the last 35 years, bus use has fallen by 60 per cent here while it has doubled in London.

Will the Government's proposed bus reforms benefit cities like Leeds or not?

At first glance, the Government seems to have this regional inequality in view, with the Prime Minister stating that “as we build back from the pandemic, better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling-up”.

However, this rhetoric is backed by little substance.

Take, for instance, the main difference between buses in Yorkshire and London. Since 1986, bus routes in our region have been deregulated, meaning that bus companies only run the routes they want to: setting their own fares and standards. London, on the other hand, has a system of public control where the network’s timetable and ticketing are run in the interest of city residents through the Mayor.

Given the massive gap in performance between these two regions, an effective bus revolution might have extended this system of public control to other areas of the UK. Instead the National Bus Strategy expects “that many councils will choose” to continue using the current deregulated system, rather than helping them to bring their buses under public control.

Will Boris Johnson’s proposed bus ‘revolution’ benefit Yorkshire - or not?

Even for those that are able to follow in London’s footsteps and activate public control, they must enter partnership deals before June to retain access to Government financial support. Partnerships keep our deregulated system, relying on voluntary commitments from bus operators to make improvements.

They’ve had the power to do this over the past 30 years and our buses have got worse. The threat to remove this funding flies in the face of a devolution agenda, meaning local authorities have a choice in name only.

The strategy also does nothing to make it easier to bring buses into public control, which is a lengthy process currently – another reason West Yorkshire needs to begin the process to activate these powers now, starting with the statutory ‘investigation’.

While there may be a few lines about the Government supporting franchising, the technical name for public control, this means nothing if the process is rigged towards minor steps like partnerships.

This is doubly frustrating as it remains illegal for local authorities to run buses directly in public hands, with all profit being reinvested into the network, otherwise known as public ownership. For example, one of England’s few remaining municipally owned bus services, Reading Buses, can invest an additional £3m a year in the bus network because it doesn’t pay out dividends to private shareholders.

Despite providing some support to local industry, the Government’s plan will not help our region transition to a low carbon economy either. TUC regional secretary Bill Adams commented: “We need to see the Government require social value procurement of bus operators. They should buy local to support local, green, unionised jobs.”

Finally, rural areas, like those in North Yorkshire, will get little from the bus strategy. The vast majority of countryside services are supported by local authority funding but austerity forced many councils to cut key services.

To add insult to injury, Yorkshire failed to receive any funding through the Government’s rural mobility fund – set up to help authorities trial on-demand bus services in rural or suburban areas.

The reality is that Yorkshire needs a fundamental overhaul of buses – and this so-called revolution fails to deliver.

The Government needs to make it much easier to bring buses into public control and reverse the ban on publicly-owned bus companies. This would allow our councils to run services directly, something that would benefit rural areas in particular where bus companies especially don’t see the local ‘market’ as profitable.

That’s how we’ll get a bus network that works for its passengers, not for private profit.

Matthew Topham is a campaigner at Better Buses for West Yorkshire.

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