Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Time to ring the bell

In 1986, the Thatcher government deregulated public transport, especially of our bus services. 

Its 1984 White Paper stated there “has been too little incentive to develop markets, to woo the customer” and that without “the dead hand of restrictive regulation” fares could be reduced, new and better services would be provided and more people would travel. That White Paper also said “if the customer has the final say, bus operators will look keenly to see where and when people want to travel. If one operator fails to provide a service that is wanted, another will.”

Of course, the opposite has happened.
  • Between 1986 and 2016, bus patronage in England outside London declined by 35%.
  • The decline in S Yorkshire has been almost twice that. In 1986, 286 million bus journeys were made. Today, that figure has fallen by 62% to 102 million.
  • Bu,t in London, where bus services remained regulated, bus patronage rose by 99%.
  • Bus fares in England outside London rose by over 156 per cent between 1995 and 2016, whilst the retail price index (RPI) rose by 77 per cent, which means bus fares have risen more than twice inflation.
  • The market is now dominated by five big bus operators – locally First and Stagecoach - with bus services run effectively as private monopolies. Unsurprisingly, they have high operating profits.
  • Today, about 40% of bus funding is public, but there is little local say about services.
So, the result of deregulation is that fares rose massively, passenger numbers fell dramatically, the number of routes fell, service frequencies suffered and congestion increased exponentially, at great cost to local businesses as well as to commuters.

Given the current considerable concern about adult social care, it is also worth recalling that the bus deregulation changes led to a significant increase in demand for care services, as many relatives and friends found they were unable (increased costs, cuts in frequency) to continue to give the voluntary care they had previously provided.

As the Bus Services Bill goes through Parliament, the government still needs to be persuaded that local transport and city region authorities must have greater powers to improve local public transport, through franchising and, if necessary, by establishing their own bus companies.