By Mike Phipps
A new report by UN Rapporteur Philip Alston and colleagues from the Centre of Human Rights and Global Justice says that 35 years of privatisation has created serious human rights impacts for those who rely on the bus, including the ability to access work, education, healthcare, and food, and to move out of poverty. The impact has been especially severe for those in rural areas, older people, women, and people with disabilities, jeopardizing many people’s ability to take part in society.
The report, Public Transport, Private Profit: The Human Cost of Privatizing Buses in the United Kingdom, found jobseekers were prevented by transport failings from attending interviews and asylum seekers – allocated around £3 a week by the government for transport needs – were unable to afford a typical daily ticket of £4. Those in work have lost their jobs when routes were cut at short notice.
Since privatisation in 1985, private bus companies now run routes outside London almost entirely on the basis of what is profitable. Over the past 35 years, argue the authors, “this approach has provided a master class in how not to run an essential public service, and left residents with an expensive, unreliable, fragmented, and dysfunctional bus system that is slowly falling apart.”
Bus operators have prioritized profits and cut essential routes. As predicted, fares have skyrocketed and ridership has plummeted. Public needs have been sacrificed for private profit. People interviewed for the report said they had lost jobs, missed medical appointments, been forced out of education, sacrificed food and utilities, and been cut off from friends and family because of an expensive and inadequate bus service that failed them.
The report’s findings are completely at odds with the promises made by the Thatcher government in its 1984 White Paper, which pledged “lower fares, new services, more passengers” and “a better service to the passenger at less cost.” The opposite has happened – with the added problem of a lack of integration between services, inadequate information and other inefficiencies.
The government’s own figures show that fares have risen by a staggering 403% since 1987, far more than the increase in the cost of driving. Bus companies across Britain averaged an operating profit of £297 million per year in the ten years prior to 2013—almost all of which was paid out in dividends to shareholders. Yet buses also receive subsidies from cash-strapped local authorities who are keen to keep essential routes going. More than 3,000 bus routes have been cut in England alone since 2009.
The rising cost and declining service saw a 50% drop in bus use in South Yorkshire in the five years after privatisation. Deregulation has meant greater unreliability, lateness and cancellations across Britain. Fragmentation has meant passengers pay multiple fares to different operators.
As ridership collapsed due to the COVID pandemic over the last year, around 90% of revenues came from government subsidy. It was essentially “a nationalized system funded at public expense, but without any of the benefits, control, or reinvestment,” suggest the authors.
People interviewed for the report said they had had to give up education and training opportunities because of transport problems. Around 10% of hospital outpatient appointments are missed for the same reason, costing the public purse millions.
Rural services have been especially hit. Council-supported bus services in rural areas of England have declined by 40% in the past decade. The UK government appears to have given up on provision in this area, in striking contrast with developments elsewhere in Europe. The Zurich region of Switzerland guarantees villages of 300 people or more at least an hourly service seven days a week. In North Hesse, Germany, bus routes reach all communities with more than 200-250 residents on at least an hourly basis, with ambitions to double public transport use by 2030.
There is also a complete absence of public accountability. A 2020 report by the National Audit Office found that companies were accountable to neither the government nor local authorities for service delivery.
No quick fix is expected for these long-standing problems. The government’s 2021 bus strategy for England offers little. But some authorities are making steps forward. Manchester, facing an un-integrated system with 150 types of tickets and declining use, announced in March 2021 its intention to regulate its buses. It determined that a franchising scheme could allow for significant improvements, including control, and accountability, as well as £345 million in direct economic benefits and £208 million in wider economic benefits.
Public ownership, says the report, is the key to operating a strong service. The 2019 Transport Act of Scotland permits the provision of bus services by local transport authorities under certain conditions, but no authority has yet made use of these powers. Elsewhere, a small number of municipally owned bus operators have performed remarkably well, for example in Reading.
Beyond public transport, the report recommends guaranteed access, affordability and greater support for local authorities. Crucially, “buses should provide a viable and attractive alternative to more emissions-intensive forms of travel and the system should be designed to make the strongest possible contribution to meeting the United Kingdom’s climate change targets and international climate agreements.”
The United Kingdom has international human rights obligations directly related to transportation. “Yet it is abundantly clear that lack of transportation has severe impacts on people’s ability to live a decent and fulfilling life, including their access to work, education, healthcare, and food,” states the report.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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