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Franchising may be the key to saving our local bus services from cuts

4 min read

The 1980s were the bleakest of years for South Yorkshire, as our region was plunged into a spiral of decline and deindustrialisation in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike. The year the strike ended, the Tory Government put in motion another seismic change.

The year the strike ended, the Tory Government put in motion another seismic change. The privatisation and deregulation of bus services in the 1985 Transport Act was the beginning of another sort of decline. The free-for-all it created left the shape of those services almost entirely up to private operators, and sharply limited the ability of local government to set fares and service levels, coordinate routes and timetables, or integrate buses with other transport.

In the decades that followed, the average price of an English bus journey has increased 403%, even as the taxpayer still provides 42% of the funding for bus transport. Passenger numbers outside of London – which kept regulation and has thrived – have dropped by 38%.

Things have been particularly tough in South Yorkshire. Passenger numbers are still down almost 30% as a result of Covid. But the rot began much earlier, with annual passenger miles in South Yorkshire falling over 20% just in the decade to 2020.

Why does all this matter? Because buses are not just another business.

We need a healthy bus service to boost our economy, to give people access to opportunity and businesses access to workers. We need it to help ensure no-one is excluded from mobility, including the most vulnerable. 

We need it to help avoid an unsustainable dependency on cars which threatens to choke our cities, and to support healthier, more liveable, more inclusive communities.    

We need it to cut fossil fuel pollution which causes 17,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, and to respond to a climate crisis whose utmost urgency is clearer every day. 

We need it, in other words, because it is critical to the sort of future we want for South Yorkshire.

We need a healthy bus service to boost our economy, to give people access to opportunity and businesses access to workers.

So whenever I hear the pessimists label buses a ‘dying industry’, I only have to ask myself: what’s the alternative?

Thirty-seven years on, we have another Conservative PM, one who claims to love buses so much he makes models of them in his spare time, and says he wants to ‘Bus Back Better’. 

But like most of Johnson’s levelling up agenda, it’s smoke and mirrors. The £3bn he promised to transform buses was already very modest. Since then, all but £1.2bn has been skimmed off, mainly to fund the emergency bus support under Covid. It’s a joke. 

Even as the pandemic stutters on, the government was due to end that emergency support this month. At the very last moment, they agreed six months more funding, but their foot-dragging, and the eagerness of the operators to slash services at the first opportunity, brought us to the brink of cuts which would have needlessly locked in what might otherwise be temporary Covid-related decline.

It’s a short-term reprieve. To avoid a repeat in six months, we need not just the promised investment for transformation, but fundamental changes in how we view and manage bus services.

That’s why last week South Yorkshire leaders and I took the decision to begin the formal assessment which is needed for franchising our bus services.

Franchising is no silver bullet. The decline since 1985 has more than one cause, and ultimately the biggest underlying challenge is funding. Conservative austerity has slashed our transport budget by 40% over the last decade: if there is no cash, franchising will not protect bus services from cuts.

Nor is the official assessment a mere formality. While I question how difficult the government has made this process, it is absolutely right we should rigorously test and clarify franchising’s costs and benefits. It is only on that basis we will be able to decide whether to finally proceed.

But there is a credible argument that the structure of the system has been a real driver of decline. More than that, there is a strong case that greater public control is a necessary framework for greater investment and support to be truly effective.

I made a promise when I was elected not just to preserve our bus services, but to lay the ground for their transformation. If there is the slightest chance of franchising being better for our buses, we have to test the case for it.

That’s the ambition we need to see from this government. We need them to finally give the potential of buses the importance it deserves, for the sale of the whole country. But we need them to break the habit of a lifetime, and do that not just in words – but in action.

Dan Jarvis is Mayor of South Yorkshire and MP for Barnsley Central

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