In 2024, Greater Manchester will reassert public, democratic control over its buses. The new, shortened timetable set out by mayor Andy Burnham following his re-election will make the combined authority, made up of Manchester and nine surrounding councils, the first area in the country to seize hold of powers passed into law in 2017. Private bus operators will, for the first time in decades, be required to do what they are told.
Bus regulation does not have the same ring as rail nationalisation – so long a rallying cry of the left. But what is happening in and around Manchester is not only expected to have a significant social and economic impact on the region, it will correct a longstanding unfairness. When Margaret Thatcher privatised buses in 1985, London (along with Northern Ireland) was offered special arrangements: in the capital, elected politicians remained in charge. While London bus operators are private companies as in most of the rest of the UK, the mayor tells them which routes to run.
Data shows the consequences. While buses are by far the most popular form of public transport, with more than 4bn journeys in 2019/20, numbers have declined over recent decades, as car journeys have risen. But in London and a handful of other places where councils held on to bus companies, including Nottingham and Reading, numbers have climbed and passenger satisfaction is higher. Reading also has one of the greenest fleets in the UK.
In some places, the level of service is so poor as to constitute a serious injustice and barrier to education and employment. An investigation by the Guardian in 2019 found people paying around four times as much as Londoners to travel equivalent distances (poorer children suffer disproportionately; in the capital they ride buses free of charge). Confronted with such figures, and a body of evidence showing the importance of integrated transport for regional economic development, it is no wonder that politicians decided to act. In March, a new national bus strategy tied subsidies to service improvements and closer cooperation with councils. Ministers as well as Mr Burnham realise that there are few more tangible ways to prove that levelling up is more than a catchphrase: when Manchester’s buses, trams and bicycles-for-hire are all painted in the black and yellow colours of the “Bee Network”, as Mr Burnham has pledged, voters will literally be able to see it.
Deregulating buses was a terrible policy that would surely have been reversed sooner had its effects been felt in London. Now, the urgent need to decarbonise transport and reduce car journeys, combined with the political imperative to reduce geographical inequalities, means the bus’s moment has finally come. Bus franchising featured in Tracy Brabin’s campaign to be metro mayor of West Yorkshire, and is the preferred option in the Liverpool region too.
For areas without a metro mayor, the route to public control is less direct, but not impossible. Resistance will come from the private sector and politicians who would prefer to leave companies with more control. Funding from central government will have to be fought for. But Mr Burnham is showing what can be done.