Campaigning for Better Buses

This article, by Liz Lawrence, explores the declining state of UK bus services, focusing on the social impact of these cutbacks and a growing movement in support of improved public transportation.


The left often talks about a social crisis in terms of cost-of-living, housing and health and social care.  Perhaps we should also talk about a social crisis in respect of public transport.  The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England demands a bus for every town and village every hour.  This is hardly a very radical demand, one bus per hour, but many people in rural areas face little choice other than to use private cars or be stranded.  It has been a notable feature of some of the public meetings being held about bus services in Yorkshire that people are telling stories about real restrictions on their lives, such as the inability to visit relatives in hospital, because of a lack of public transport.

The figures for cutbacks to bus services, outside London, in recent years are quite staggering.  Research published by the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds and Friends of the Earth reports that since 2008 urban bus services have declined by 48% and rural bus services by 52%.

These cuts have been going on for many years, although exacerbated by periods of lockdown during the Covid pandemic.  Many areas can face a vicious spiral of decline in bus services as unreliable and infrequent bus services lead to more people using cars, then further decline in provision of buses as the need for buses is deemed not to be there.

“These cuts have been going on for many years, although exacerbated by periods of lockdown during the Covid pandemic.”

Bus and other public transport services are important for working people to access education, employment, healthcare, sports and leisure activities, the countryside and to visit family and friends.  Older people value the bus pass, but it becomes worthless if there are no buses available where people live.  Free public transport does a lot to integrate older people into public life.  There are all sorts of good reasons for supporting good quality public transport provision.  What is happening, however, in terms of UK politics is that the Labour Party nationally is not making much of a priority of the issue, although Labour Mayors in some parts of the country are very active on public transport issues, and Rishi Sunak has decided to court the motorist vote as an electoral strategy.  So, the Tories are going for supporting motorists to win votes, for instance in the way they weaponised the ULEZ issue in the Uxbridge by-election of July 2023, and the Labour Party nationally seems oblivious to the fact that supporting better buses would be a vote-winner.  In the next General Election it is possible that the right of the Conservative party, and some other right-wing extremists, will see the demand for decent, affordable or free public transport as dangerous left-wing nonsense or something to be attacked, along with other green initiatives, as part of their ‘war on woke’.

There is a national campaign for Better Buses which is gaining increasing support across the UK.  This campaign first developed in South Yorkshire.  It arose directly from the activities of the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders, who started campaigning in 2014 when the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority decided to remove some concessions which accompanied the South Yorkshire bus pass.  These concessions included the right to use the bus pass from 9.00 a.m. instead of 9.30 a.m. and to travel free with a South Yorkshire bus pass on some trains in South and West Yorkshire.  The South Yorkshire Freedom Riders engaged in campaigns and protests and rode on trains without paying.

South Yorkshire has a long history of support for affordable public transport.  In the 1970s the South Yorkshire County Council, in the days of what was known as ‘The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ ran a cheap fares policy in which Sheffield residents could travel anywhere in the city for 10p and children could travel for 2p.  This cheap fares policy meant people made great use of buses, buses were frequent and car usage was low.  It was cheaper to use public transport than cars to get to work.  Helen Jackson, the former Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough discusses this in her book ‘The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ (Spokesman 2021).  Jackson writes:

‘Public transport based on very cheap fares is indeed a working model of how public finance and purchasing power can be used for economic and social good.  On the one hand it protects employment and boosts investment in manufacturing; on another it establishes a culture of friendly and supportive communities where young and old can afford to enjoy leisure amenities across the region.  It reduces inequality because of being of universal benefit which helps poorer families and individuals more than the wealthy’ (Jackson, p.27).

What Jackson’s book shows is both what a popular socialist policy could achieve and also the way it could be destroyed by the central government through stopping the funding.  It raises interesting issues about the achievements and limits of municipal socialism.  In September 1986 the Transport Act outlawed the prospects of continuing the South Yorkshire Cheap Fares policy.  Outside London bus services were deregulated and fares in South Yorkshire trebled.

“What Jackson’s book shows is both what a popular socialist policy could achieve and also the way it could be destroyed by the central government through stopping the funding.”

What was the Thatcherite deregulation of buses about?  Some of it may be viewed in terms of political ideology.  In the Thatcher years (1979-90) the public were regularly told that all public services were inefficient and that everything the private sector did was efficient.  There was a belief propagated that competition of suppliers in transport, gas, electricity, and water was all in the public interest because we would get better services and cheaper prices, a promise hardly borne out by experiences of privatisation.  The belief in the virtues of competition was carried to the point of prohibiting co-ordinated timetables for trains, trams and buses, because this would restrict competition.

What is noteworthy about the level of privatisation and competition that was brought in for bus services outside London under Thatcherism was that it did not happen in any other European country.  Many European capitalist governments and local authorities operate subsidised or even free public transport systems.

Campaigning for better public transport, especially better bus services, has been developing in Yorkshire for some years.  In 2018 the National Pensioners Convention held a rally in York to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the bus pass in England.  In June 2019 Yorkshire and Humber Pensioners Convention organised a conference on public transport in Barnsley.  A room was booked at Barnsley Civic Centre with a capacity for 30 people.  Three times that number turned up, including not only pensioners, but also students, disability rights activists and trade unionists.  Fortunately, a larger room was available and the meeting relocated to a room which was just about adequate.  Following this event a regional transport manifesto was produced.

Bus services were hit during the pandemic, with routes closing and buses becoming less frequent.  Groups campaigning for better buses developed in South, West and North Yorkshire, often meeting online.  In June 2023 a national bus conference was held in York.  It was held as a hybrid event with around 100 participants, most attending in-person.  There were presentations about bus campaigns in various parts of the UK, including Glasgow, about the impact of Thatcherite privatisation of bus services and positive visions from other countries of what public transport could be like.  Delegates were inspired to hear of sensible, integrated public transport systems, which operate on the basis of ‘one ticket, one timetable, one network’ and about provision of free public transport and the idea of access to public transport as a human right, established in law.  A workshop on rural transport (or the lack of it) attracted so much support it had to be relocated to another room.  There will be a recall conference in Spring 2025.

One of the key demands of bus campaigners outside London has been for franchising of bus services.  Franchising means bringing bus services under public control.  Franchising is a step towards public ownership.  Under a system of franchising local or regional public transport authorities have the authority to set fares, routes and timetables.  Public transport authorities can also take over the depots and the buses.  There are several stages to bringing in franchising of buses; these include formulating a business case, an audit and a public consultation.  Transport campaigners have been lobbying public transport authorities at all stages of this process.

Recently in West Yorkshire a public consultation on franchising of buses has resulted in support for the introduction of franchising.  On 14th March West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin announced that franchising of buses in West Yorkshire would be introduced.  This followed over 12,000 signatures being collected on a petition for bus franchising.  This was organised by Better Buses West Yorkshire.  This development indicates a turning of the tide away from deregulation.

One of the strengths of the Better Buses campaign has been the ability to make focused demands targeted at elected mayors and others who can implement changes in transport provision.  Campaigners have engaged in leafleting, petitioning and holding street stalls putting the case for better public transport, especially buses.  The campaign involves pensioners, trade unionists, students, and green activists, for whom the demand for Better Buses provides a common focus and basis for joint work.

“The demand for better buses also raises issues of links with other transport services and integration of public transport services.”

The Better Buses campaign has launched a petition for better buses for England.  Petitions for Cymru and for Scotland are being planned. 

In the campaign there is ongoing discussion and deepening understanding of what better buses would mean.  It must include better pay and working conditions for bus workers.  Without decent employment conditions for bus workers, there will not be enough buses on the road to meet increased demand for public transport.  It must mean, especially as bus services are brought back into public ownership, the building of better, more accessible, and greener buses.  For service users buses need to be more frequent, more reliable and with convenient routes.  Not everyone can climb a hill between their home and the bus stop.

There are also issues of safety for bus workers and bus users, including safety when waiting at bus stops.  Generally, the more frequent buses are and the more passengers there are using buses, the safer buses are for everyone.  It would also be good to have helpful announcements on buses throughout the country, as there are on London buses, telling people where to alight for the hospital or other destination.  Investment in better buses by public authorities could bring all this about.

The demand for better buses also raises issues of links with other transport services and integration of public transport services.  This is important in terms of timetables, convenient transfers between transport services and use of a single ticket.  Such services could also ensure they meet the needs of disabled travellers and provide genuinely accessible public transport.  None of this should be seen as particularly radical.  It is the normality in cities with good public transport services.  Nonetheless it would be a major improvement in many parts of the UK.

Franchising of bus services (outside London) could be a step towards public ownership of bus services, linking up with other transport services.  The provision of better buses as a public good would contribute towards both reducing social inequality and reducing carbon emissions from transport.  Such a system would be supported by the establishment of democratic planning of transport services with elected committees of worker representatives and service user representatives.

Art (47) Book Review (102) Books (106) Capitalism (64) China (73) Climate Emergency (97) Conservative Government (90) Conservative Party (45) COVID-19 (43) Economics (36) EcoSocialism (48) Elections (73) Europe (44) Fascism (52) Film (47) Film Review (60) France (65) Gaza (52) Imperialism (95) Israel (103) Italy (42) Keir Starmer (48) Labour Party (108) Long Read (38) Marxism (45) Palestine (133) pandemic (78) Protest (137) Russia (322) Solidarity (123) Statement (44) Trade Unionism (132) Ukraine (324) United States of America (119) War (349)

Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

Join the discussion