Labour Research November 2019


Bus cuts take us for a ride

Labour Research looks at the impact of cuts to bus services on users, workers and the environment, as well as union demands for change.

Buses are the most used form of public transport in the UK, accounting for six out of 10 of all public transport journeys. But since 2010, cuts to local council busbudgets have resulted in the loss of over 3,000 services across England and Wales. 

And cuts are not the only problem. A toxic combination of privatisation, deregulation and austerity has led to axed bus routes, soaring fares and plummeting passenger numbers, as well as increased congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. 

According to the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), passengers take around 4.4 billion journeys by bus each year, accounting for 59% of all public transport journeys. But serious reductions in services have left many communities disconnected from public transport, increasing social isolation and stifling local economies. 

In most places, local authorities use their bus service budgets to help to fund socially-necessary services where they are not being provided on a commercial basis by a bus operator. 

Cuts to bus service funding

But since 2010, local authority funding outside London for unprofitable bus services has been cut by 46% as a result of the government’s austerity agenda, and has resulted in the loss of over 3,000 services in England and Wales. 

The Unite general union says the cuts amount to around £645 million a year in real terms and have had a devastating effect on rural communities, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly. 

“People living in rural areas are particularly affected because routes are not profitable enough,” Unite national officer Bobby Morton told Labour Research. “Villages have also often seen their local post office and bank close, so they have to travel to other villages or towns for these services. 

“The absence of a local bus route makes it impossible for many people to do the type of thing that those of us living in cities take for granted.”

In a debate on free bus travel for the under-25s in the Scottish Parliament in March 2019, the Labour MSP for Scotland South, Colin Smyth, said there had also been “eye-watering” cuts to council budgets leading to cuts in bus routes across Scotland.

The bus service operator grant has been reduced by 28% under the Scottish National Party, he said, with an overall 11% fall in support for buses over the last five years.

Declining passenger numbers

Figures in Scottish Transport Statistics 2018 (STS), published in February 2019, show 388 million journeys were made by bus in 2017-18, a 20% fall from a peak in 2007-08. Smyth said those who could least afford it are being disproportionately affected: young and older people, the unemployed, students and others on low income and particularly those living in rural areas. 

The STS report refers to the Scottish Household Survey Travel Diary which shows 56% of those who used the bus the previous day lived in large urban areas, compared to just three per cent of users living in remote rural areas. 

But it is not just rural communities that are being affected. A June 2019 report by the Urban Transport Group (UTG), Urban transport trends in changing times, says bus patronage — the number of people using buses — is in long-term decline across England’s city regions. 

These are the six metropolitan areas — Greater Manchester, Tyne and Wear, Merseyside, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands — and London where numbers travelling by bus fell by 15% from 1.1 billion in 2009-10 to 908 million in 2017-18. 

Even in London, which has seen a less dramatic decrease than the metropolitan areas, it has decreased for the last four years and is back to 2009-10 levels. 

The UTG highlights cuts to bus services and fare increases as among the reasons for the decline in bus travel in cities. It also points to a reduction in the number of people entitled to concessionary bus travel as a result of increases in eligibility age. 

Overall, the latest Department for Transport (DfT) annual bus transport statistics, published in January 2019, show the number of local bus passenger services in England fell by 85 million (nearly 2%) to 4.36 million in the year ending March 2018.

And while the number of bus passengers has declined by 10% since 2010, Unite points out that bus fares have increased by 32%, well above the rate of inflation.

Impact on bus users

“There is an impact on social isolation as the reduction in bus services can massively affect ability to access education, healthcare and employment,” says the RMT transport union.

A motion to this year’s annual water, environment and transport conference of the UNISON public services union highlights the impact of bus service budget cuts on workers. 

“The lack of funding means that bus services often fail to meet the changing needs of customers,” it says. 

“They often don’t cater for continental shift patterns; there are fewer or no Saturday services or they start later and finish earlier, meaning that people cannot get to work; there are even greater reductions to Sunday services — even during shopping hours; and there is often little integration and connections with other modes of transport — especially during the evening.”

Impact on bus drivers

The RMT reports that since 2010, 8,000 bus drivers have lost their jobs. And the UNISON motion says further cuts to, and withdrawal of, bus services across the UK are “affecting the job security of our members working in transport and the erosion of their terms and conditions”. 

For example, low pay is a huge problem in the industry and is leading to a long-hours culture.

“There is a dreadful lack of drivers that means the whole of the industry is being run on an overtime basis,” Morton told Labour Research. He described “a vicious circle whereby the lack of drivers increases the amount of hours that drivers work” along with fatigue levels.

Recent research by Unite, based on a survey of more than 13,500 transport workers, found that bus drivers were among those being pushed to “exhaustion and beyond”, with “shocking levels of tiredness and exhaustion which is dramatically affecting their physical and mental health”. Tiredness and fatigue are also putting public safety at risk, the union found. Nearly 80% of bus drivers said they have made errors while driving due to tiredness, while 10% have fallen asleep at the wheel. It also found that 44% of bus drivers are working at least six days a week.

“Many bus drivers take on overtime to supplement their low wages,” says the RMT. Average weekly earnings for bus drivers is £542.50 compared to the national average of £685.30. 

Union campaigning

The union backed Warwick and Leamington Labour MP Matt Western’s Bus Drivers (Working Hours on Local Routes) Bill. This would limit the driving hours of bus drivers on local routes to no more than 56 in any one week and 90 in any two consecutive weeks. Western and the RMT make clear employers should introduce the changes at no detriment to bus drivers’ pay. 

Although the Bill fell due to Parliament’s prorogation (suspension) in September, the RMT still supports the campaign and points to a recent transport select committee report into the health of the bus market calling for local bus driver hours to be regulated.

Western’s Bill would have brought into line the rules for bus drivers working on local routes with those for long-distance bus drivers and HGV drivers. 

In April 2019, unions welcomed the Labour Party’s announcement of new funding of £1.3 billion a year to reverse the Tory cuts and fund the expansion of new bus services, as well as free bus fares for young people. 

Campaigning for better bus services by Unite has included successfully lobbying the party on funding and regulation, and the union welcomed Labour’s plans “to put communities in control of local services by regulating and bringing into public ownership local services”. 

Since the mid-1980s, bus services have been largely deregulated and privatised. In London, buses operate under a franchise. Private bus operators bid to run a service under a contract with Transport for London (TfL). There is some regulation — TfL has control over fares for example — but private firms make a profit under the franchise.

The RMT organises bus drivers outside London, where services are completely deregulated and bus operators “can ‘cherry pick’ which services to run, and set their own fares,” it says. 

Bus fares outside London have risen more than inflation, bus drivers are on lower-than-average salaries, and large amounts of money are made in private profit.” (See box on page 10.)

A May 2019 report by the cross-party transport select committee of MPs examined bus services in England outside London. 

It said deregulation was supposed to address the steady decline in bus use since the 1950s and bring in a new era of bus travel, and successive governments have stuck with deregulation. 

But it found “the promised benefits have never materialised” and, at best, it has done little more “than slow the decline in bus use”. Others provide a harsher analysis of the failures of privatisation and deregulation (see box on page 10). 

The failure of bus deregulation and privatisation

Anti-privatisation group We Own It describes 30 years of deregulation and privatisation of bus services as a disaster, with people outside London hit hardest by privatisation. 

The five largest private bus companies —Arriva, First, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach — carry 70% of all passengers. And, it says, only 1% of bus services face head-to-head competition, which has led to lower quality services and higher fares.

“Fares went up and routes that weren’t profitable were cut, meaning you now pay more for less,” it reports. Almost one in five workers (19%) has had to turn down a job due to poor quality bus services.

It points out that 40% of bus company revenue is public money provided by government and local authorities, while the rest comes from fares. 

But £2.8 billion was paid out to shareholders in the 10 years to 2013, while fares in England (outside London) have increased 35% above inflation since 1995. 

The RMT transport union reports that bus companies received £1.4 billion in local and national funding in 2017-18. 

And Stagecoach, the operator with the largest share of the bus market outside London, saw operating profits for its UK bus operations outside London of £117 million in 2019 (an 11.2% profit margin) and £112 million in 2018. 

Public ownership would, says We Own It, save £506 million a year that could be invested in lower fares and developing better bus networks. 

“We pay for our buses so we should have a say in how they are run,” it says.

A 2016 report by the Transport for Quality of Life (TfQL) organisation that promotes sustainable transport solutions, says “there is a fundamental conflict between deregulation and a world-class bus system”. It says deregulation “makes it impossible for bus services to work together as a unified network”. 

TfQL’s Building a world-class bus system for Britain, says this prevents cost-effective use of public money to provide the best bus services for the available resource, which becomes particularly evident at a time when funding cutbacks mean there is less public money available. Bus operators can cherry-pick the profits from the best routes, extracting revenues that local authorities could otherwise use to improve the rest of the bus network. 

Even in London, where services have been privatised but not deregulated, it points to a “damaging race to the bottom for staff pay and conditions”.

Municipal bus companies

Unite wants to see more municipalisation. The Bus Services Act 2017 gives combined authorities (two or more neighbouring councils co-ordinating responsibilities) the right to apply to run local bus services under a franchise as in London. Metro mayor Andy Burnham is proposing to do just this in Manchester. 

But Morton says the Act was rushed through Parliament before the 2017 snap general election without a Lords amendment that would have allowed the number of municipal bus companies to increase. 

There are now just nine municipal bus companies across the UK — Blackpool Transport, Cardiff Bus, Lothian Buses, Halton Transport, Ipswich Buses, Newport Buses, the Translink public corporation in Northern Ireland, Nottingham City Transport, Reading Buses and Warrington’s Own Buses. 

Meanwhile, the 2017 Act prohibits local authorities in England from setting up new municipal bus companies.

“Municipals are wonderful,” Morton told Labour Research. “Money goes back into the local council to provide services for local people and they have best wages and pay and conditions.” 

Morton said that research by Friends of the Earth has also shown that passenger satisfaction is far higher for a municipal than a private operator.”

National bus strategy

The RMT is calling for a national bus strategy and public ownership at national level so there is consistency across the country rather than a postcode lottery with varying provision in different areas. 

The union said: “There needs to be a national strategy with sufficient ring-fenced national funding for local authorities to deliver the services their communities require through a municipally owned company which owns its buses as well as garages and depots. 

“And buses should be funded nationally like other forms of public transport.”

Public transport and climate change 

In 2018, 33% of the UK’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were from the transport sector, compared to 27% from energy supply, 18% from business and 18% from the residential sector, according to provisional figures on UK greenhouse gas emissions published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in March 2019.

The Trade Union Clean Air Network says transport is also responsible for over half of air pollutants, with most journeys directly or indirectly related to work activities.

The current model of largely privatised and deregulated bus services is failing to get people out of their cars and on to public transport. 

The road less travelled, a report by global campaign group Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, says “neoliberal climate policy has failed to make any real progress in addressing transport-related emissions” and has prevented public transport from realising its potential. 

Efforts to unlock private finance to help governments achieve their climate goals, including for transport, have “failed miserably” it says.

It argues for a policy shift to put mass public transport at the centre of future passenger mobility, and for “a decisive turn away from both neoliberal policy approaches, and the model of development that is centred on providing ‘on-demand personal mobility’ at almost any cost”.

The Campaign for Better Transport says passenger cars produce nearly 60% of all CO2 emissions from road transport in the UK, compared with just 5% from buses. If car drivers switched just one in 25 of their car journeys to bus or coach, it would mean one billion fewer car journeys per year.

“Bringing public transport into public ownership and running it as a public service, not for profit, would have the most significant impact,” the RMT transport union told Labour Research. 

“It would cut congestion and reduce air quality and carbon emissions by encouraging modal shifts away from private car usage and by stopping bus companies competing for passengers on the same route.”