On the 30th anniversary of bus deregulation, guest blogger Simon Norton, of Cambridgeshire Campaign for Better Transport, looks at what effects it's had and sets out his priorities for reversing the current bus crisis.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the legislation that deregulated our buses, so it's an appropriate time to ask how they have fared since.
It's sometimes said that rail privatisation was intended to remove railways from politics. If so, it's failed -- they are now more of a political issue than they've been for decades. However, in these terms bus deregulation has been a resounding success: most of the media, politicians, and environmental and social campaigners, both nationally and locally, have all been silent (in some cases, no doubt, because they're unaware of the issue) as buses have been cut savagely.
Buses should be one of the most important political issues. Transport is so embedded into our society that its removal is a serious curtailment of people's civil liberties. Cars blight our communities with pollution, danger, congestion, noise and climate change emissions; but all too often escape to the countryside, whether to live or visit, demands - guess what? - a car.
But bus deregulation has stunted the development of effective user campaigns. Local authorities have abdicated the development of effective area-wide networks to commercial operators, who tend to concentrate on the most profitable routes. This makes campaigning for improvements like banging one's head against a brick wall. Many Local Transport Plans, for example, cover the whole gamut of transport issues except for what matters most to bus users; what local bus networks should look like and how often services should run.
With little support from other campaigners, bus users have suffered in silence as the Government has targeted some of its most vicious cuts on them. Some urban neighbourhoods are now isolated in the evenings and on Sundays, while there are fair sized villages where people can't even get to work for normal office hours. All this while the Government plans massive road widening, airport expansion, rail upgrades, and dedicated routes for cyclists and, yes, buses. But nothing is done for what bus users need most - the far cheaper goal of developing and maintaining a comprehensive network.
A few areas, such as Brighton & Hove, have managed to buck the trend. But, contrary to the stated expectations of some deregulation advocates, these positive results haven’t spread to other areas.
So, my priorities for change would be as follows:
1. Set up new bus partnerships in all parts of the country, to include local authorities, bus operators and bus users. They would have a statutory duty (and sufficient funding!) to procure a comprehensive bus network. At the very least, every village should have services to a nearby town at times suitable for work, school and shopping; and larger villages, urban neighbourhoods and major new developments should have regular services seven days a week, evenings included.
2. Require providers of facilities to take reasonable steps to provide for non-motorists, along the lines of existing legislation for disabled people. This would include the removal of funding from heritage attractions whose opening times don't align with transport availability (e.g. if they open only on Sundays in areas where buses only run Monday-to-Saturday).
3. Use a combination of revised planning guidance and a parking tax to give both new and existing developments incentives to cater for non-motorists.
4. Teach teenagers how to travel without relying on cars - instead using public transport, cycling and walking. Mind you, we'd probably need to train our teachers first. People taking driving tests should also have to show that they know how to travel without a car.