On Friday 2 June, Marion Harrington caught the 82 bus at 10am at the usual stop outside her house on Waterford Park, a late Sixties estate of solid Barratt housing in Westfield, northeast Somerset. All her life she has lived among these old pit villages, arranged in neat closes of uPVC windows and pebbledash under the craggy green gaze of the Mendip Hills.
Chatting with the driver, saying hello to passengers popping on and off, and gazing out of the window, she rode the bus all day until its last stop at 3pm. The 90-year-old was on a goodbye tour. Her precious bus service, which she had been taking for a decade and christened the “Happy Bus” because she’d made so many friends along its route, was ending that day.
The 82, which ran between Paulton, the village where Harrington grew up, and the former coal-mining town of Radstock, was one of 42 bus services in the West of England to be cut this year. Of those, 19 were in North East Somerset, where the former Tory minister, Boris Johnson champion and butler-like Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is MP.
“This is my lifeline,” said Harrington, when I met her for a cup of tea the following Friday at Longfellow’s Café, a bright space of hessian bunting and menus in terracotta plant pots, serving sandwiches the size of breeze blocks. Next door was a special educational needs school once accessible on the 82 bus route. The bus driver would help the pupils on and off. He also helped Harrington – who took the bus three or four times a week – to carry any heavy shopping into her house. The bus was her route to an independent life; she used it to go shopping and to have her hair done, to the post office, bank and to see friends at her lunch club.
She feared being alone again; she hated being shut in during the lockdown. For weeks she felt so lonely that she started speaking to a spider that would crawl out of a nook in her lounge window every day, until even he stopped coming back. “This is what happens to people when you reduce their ability to speak to people,” said Harrington, who worked at a printworks and local school before retiring.
In the week since her last journey on the 82, she had to use a Dial-a-Ride minibus to take her to the bank, dentist and a neighbouring town, at £4.50 per journey. The bus, in contrast, had been free with her pensioner’s pass.
With her white hair, pink-framed glasses and purple cardie, Harrington looked every bit the “little old lady” she claimed to be. But she was fiercely resisting the cuts. By the time we met, she had confronted local politicians at a council meeting, collected nearly 500 signatures on a petition, and marched into Rees-Mogg’s constituency surgery uninvited.
Around 140 passengers a day used to take the 82, including 40 schoolchildren. But when I asked local politicians about the route being cut, no one would take responsibility. The council blamed the mayor, the mayor blamed the council, and Rees-Mogg – who opposes the decision – blamed them both for “passing the buck back and forth” and told me he had no “direct influence over such decisions”.
Subsidies for “supported” bus services like this (socially crucial, but not commercially viable) are a council’s responsibility, but the mayor of the West of England also has central government funding for transport. This makes the 82’s fate a “grey area”, said Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities think tank, who knows the area as his wife grew up nearby.
If there were a general election tomorrow, Labour would take North East Somerset from the Tories, according to April data analysis from the UK Polling Report. This in a county where currently all MPs are Conservative, other than a Lib Dem representing the city of Bath and an independent (a suspended former Tory) in Somerton and Frome, where there will be a by-election this summer.
It is perhaps no wonder that “a political game” is being played here, in Swinney’s words. Bath and North East Somerset Council is Lib Dem-run, Dan Norris is the Labour metro mayor of the West of England, and Rees-Mogg – along with the ministers ultimately in charge – is a Conservative.
To me, this felt like a cautionary tale of devolution, now so often lauded by both main parties as a solution to the problems of disenfranchised communities. “Levelling up” – rebalancing the UK’s economy across its regions – was Boris Johnson’s flagship policy, and is still a priority for Michael Gove in government today. Labour, in turn, would introduce a “Take Back Control Bill” to transfer far more power from Whitehall to local decision-makers.
But the curious case of the 82 bus exposes how too many levels of local government – especially if they are occupied by clashing political parties – can fail the voters they’re supposed to support. Like an overcooked lasagne, the only thing you can discern in the mush are its layers. “A devolution model that doesn’t bring clear lines of responsibility and accountability creates more of a headache than anything else,” warned Swinney.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has used his powers to take bus franchising in-house and capped journeys at £2. But improving bus routes in rural Britain – where journeys take longer and populations are sparser – is a tougher challenge, according to Graham Biggs, a policy adviser at the Rural Services Network. “You can get more bang for your buck in the urban area than the rural parts of a district.”
Of England’s nine combined authorities, the West of England is the only one without tax-raising powers. Biggs pointed out how stretched rural councils have become, calculating that in 2022-23 they were only able to budget £67 per head on “discretionary services”, like bus routes, compared with £131 per head in urban areas.
[See also: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s GB News payday]
Ultimately, however, a town versus country narrative distracts from the original sin of central government cuts. More than one in four bus services across England vanished in the decade from 2010, when David Cameron’s government decided to drastically reduce cash for councils.
This is a profound change in day-to-day life, largely ignored by a national politics more preoccupied with rail failings. While train strikes, ticket prices and ownership models dominate media coverage, 62 per cent of public transport journeys in Britain were made on local buses last year.
“I use buses all the time. One of my problems with my fellow councillors is that they do not spend time waiting for buses, and having buses cancelled on them,” said Dr Eleanor Jackson, Westfield’s Labour councillor who is campaigning against the bus cuts. After suffering a spinal injury in 1980, and losing half her sight, she can’t drive. “I don’t think people who can drive realise what life is like if you cannot.”
Westfield is a deprived pocket of this bucolic stretch of Somerset – a county otherwise associated with affluence, apples and Anglo-Saxon kings. Over the past two decades, locals like Harrington have lost so much. The post office, greengrocer, newsagent, hardware shop and hairdresser have all slunk away. Even the chippie closed down, and there’s no library or bank.
A quiet anger is rumbling. The local atmosphere is being drained, despite so much promised by a government that says it cares about the “left behind”, about civic pride. Rees-Mogg, who told me he’s campaigning on his residents’ behalf to bring the buses back, has voted consistently against greater public control of bus services, and voted through every austerity budget proposed by successive Conservative governments since he was elected.
“We’ve got nothing for everyday living,” Harrington said. “My grandchildren don’t believe me when I tell them what it used to be like here. We used to have everything we needed in Westfield when we moved here 20 years ago, now it’s all gone.
“I haven’t paid my taxes all my life so that people like me are not given the respect to go on living a normal, independent life. I still have my pride.”