OVER the past year the conversation around public transport has seen problems with the rail network grabbing all the headlines. Which, considering the chaos we’ve endured in Yorkshire on our underfunded and long-neglected rail network owing to government ineptitude, is hardly surprising.
And while this attention is certainly warranted, it’s important we don’t overlook the humble bus – a form of transport absolutely integral to the lives of millions of people up and down our nation.
So – for the record – I love buses! A statement I made loud and proud in the House of Commons to a few raised eyebrows. On a bus you have the chance to chat to strangers, catch up on the news, daydream or watch your community through the window as it passes by. You can even watch your favourite TV show as you travel, with some routes now wifi-enabled. Done right, a bus journey can offer a rare moment of tranquillity in an increasingly hectic world.
Buses are the most used form of public transport in West Yorkshire by a country mile, so we must get it right. Our bus routes are vital in connecting communities like my Batley and Spen constituency, communities made up of several small towns and villages.
Indeed, with just one railway station in my constituency, our bus links are all the more important in ensuring we can access the opportunities that lay beyond our doorsteps.
Yet the economic gap between towns and cities can be demonstrated in the differing opportunities to use buses to get out and about. The Urban Transport Group – the UK’s network of city region transport authorities – has shown that one in 10 people would be out of a job without their bus service.
It shouldn’t be this way, but while investment continues to be ploughed disproportionately into cities, we’ll continue to be forced to travel further afield for those new opportunities.
A sad fact that’s only exacerbated by the astonishing disparity in North-South transport spending, where twice as much is poured into London than in the North.
This is one of the reasons why a controversial overhaul of bus routes in my constituency is causing so much anger. Announced by Arriva at the end of January and implemented recently, the sweeping changes have seen several routes cut and the loss of direct services for many.
As one disgruntled commuter succinctly put it on Twitter: “Batley and other communities are being treated as second class.” It’s hard to disagree.
My inbox is full of messages from those whose commutes have been thrown in chaos. And numerous residents have told me that the changes will result in them becoming further isolated from jobs and opportunities, robbing them of time with family, friends and loved ones.
I’ve had emails from elderly residents who will be forced to use taxis to get to medical appointments, and some who fear they’ll rarely leave the house because two buses is just a stretch too far. When there are over nine million people in the UK suffering from loneliness, the last thing we need is another barrier to socialising. If our ailing high streets are to thrive once again, public transport cannot be a barrier to access.
Sadly, the Government’s transport strategy is fractured and ill-thought out. And it’s pretty basic stuff. Our roads are becoming increasingly congested and with potentially life-threatening air pollution levels rising at an alarming rate, we desperately need a sustainable, green alternative.
A viable alternative that empowers us to leave our cars at home and recognises we need fast commutes into nearby, cities but not at the expense of inter-community transport.
In the past year, passenger journeys fell by 85 million in England while central government funding for buses has almost halved since 2010.
And local authorities stripped to the bone by seismic budget cuts – the Kirklees budget has been slashed by 60 per cent since 2010 – are now struggling to subsidise the less profitable routes.
Yet there’s no shortage of money to be made. Bus companies have raked in a combined £3.3bn in profit since 2009-10 so some are doing well out of our transport network.
Sadly it’s not passengers. And it should be their interests they serve, not the shareholders. Buses are more than just business, they provide a public service to communities.
This is exactly why we should be bringing our buses back under local authority control. Our buses need to be run in the interest of the people they are meant to serve.
People should not be abandoned simply because they don’t happen to live on a lucrative routes. Our ask is simple – give our communities the funding and the powers, and we’ll do the rest for ourselves.
Tracy Brabin is the Labour MP for Batley and Spen.