Almost four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher’s government boldly predicted that privatising Britain’s bus sector would lead to “lower fares, new services, and more passengers”, while removing “any potential future liability on the taxpayer”.
Today, those claims seem farcical, with much of the bus sector in crisis. Private operators have profited handsomely, but passengers dependent on buses to get to work, access services and visit loved ones have suffered greatly. Taxpayers are subsidising corporate profits, while companies run a service so confusing and ineffective that riders have abandoned it in droves, undermining efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.
London’s relatively well-run and highly regulated system is, in fact, an outlier in Britain. In the rest of England, Scotland and Wales, Thatcher’s extreme form of privatisation and deregulation prohibited municipal services and left it to private operators to decide which routes to run and how much to charge.
This arrangement, which is almost unique among wealthy nations, has delivered an expensive, unreliable and dysfunctional service. In England alone, more than 3,000 local-authority-supported routes have been cut or reduced in the past two decades, fares are up 403% since 1987 and ridership plummeted by 38% outside London between 1982 and 2016-17. Bus services are fragmented, with multiple operators running uncoordinated routes, each with their own tickets, schedules and maps. And passengers complain of unreliable service and poor coverage.
The privatised system has also proven remarkably expensive. Unlike public operators, which reinvest profits in service and cross-subsidise unprofitable routes, private companies extract profits as shareholder dividends. Meanwhile, the public is still on the hook. Taxpayer money accounts for 42% of funding for bus services in England outside London, and hundreds of millions of additional pounds have been allocated to support services during the pandemic.
This approach has had a severe impact on people’s lives and rights. In a new report, my colleagues and I demonstrate that people have lost jobs and benefits, faced barriers to healthcare, been forced to give up on education, and sacrificed food and utilities – because of a bus service that isn’t working. And to top it off, private operators aren’t accountable to democratic processes, so passengers lack meaningful recourse when the service doesn’t work for them.
This is no way to run an essential service that so many rely on. Buses account for 4.5bn journeys per year in England, Scotland and Wales. They boost economic growth and alleviate poverty, transporting more people to work than all other forms of public transport combined. Buses also enable access to basic services and are essential to fulfilling many human rights. For some, including people in rural areas or those with disabilities, they can be a lifeline. A strong bus system is a remarkably effective way to ensure people of all ages and from all walks of life can participate in society – whether this means visiting the local library or community centre, shopping, attending a football match or meeting family and friends.
After neglecting the issue for decades, the UK government this year published a new bus strategy for England. To its credit, it recognised the failures of the current system and acknowledged: “If we are not to abandon entire communities, services cannot be planned purely on a commercial basis.” But the strategy completely fails to address the fundamental problem. It continues to put private interests ahead of public ones, despite decades of evidence that organising a transport sector around profit is not a good way to provide for people’s needs. Instead, the strategy offers lacklustre half-measures.
This is particularly disappointing given the central importance of public transport in addressing the climate crisis. The government’s new decarbonisation plan won’t be effective if zero-emission buses are running empty.
More fundamental change is needed. Public control or ownership would be more cost-effective and allow for reinvestment of profits, integrated networks, more efficient coverage, simpler fares, consistency with climate goals, and public accountability. Regulation in London and municipally owned operators such as in Nottingham, Reading and Edinburgh provide impressive counter-examples of what is possible.
There have been some positive developments: Greater Manchester recently announced its intention to re-regulate its service, and organisers are working from Glasgow to West Yorkshire to push for public control and ownership. But they are up against bans on new municipal bus companies and severe barriers to franchising that are so onerous no authority has yet succeeded in navigating them.
The UK and devolved governments should follow the evidence, abandon the notion that public transport can be left to the private market and take responsibility for ensuring buses work. They should legislate minimum service levels, overturn the ban on municipal bus companies and throw their financial and political support behind public control of bus systems. Anything less is half a solution that will not undo the damage of decades of privatisation.
Bassam Khawaji co-directs the Human Rights and Privatisation Project at NYU School of Law. He wrote this article with his co-director, Rebecca Riddell, and Philip Alston, professor of law at NYU and former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Together, they authored the recent report on the failures of Britain’s bus system.