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Labour’s publicly controlled buses policy is vital – but it’s only the first step

Transport for London-style franchising will improve local services. But councils need to open decision-making to the public.

By Matthew Topham

Few issues better capture the disconnect between Westminster politics and the British people than our broken bus networks (outside London, of course). Whereas the capital has for years enjoyed the fruits of a publicly controlled, fully integrated bus service, the rest of the country has seen bus journeys decline precipitously as service levels deteriorate. Labour is positioning itself as the party to repair this rupture, by championing public control and ownership of local buses everywhere in the country.

As part of its regional electoral strategy, this policy was heavily promoted by candidates in May’s local elections. It has been embedded in the party’s “take back control” bill, which will give councils and regional authorities the powers to establish publicly controlled, Transport for London-style franchising networks. Labour’s focus on the bread-and-butter issue of cuts to local bus services and scrapped routes even prompted a shadow minister to ditch canvassing during July’s Selby and Ainsty by-election, and explore the constituency by bus.

Public control refers to a specific power – bus franchising – that has already been devolved to metro mayors, such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands, under the Bus Services Act of 2017. It sees local networks designed by public transport authorities with private operators only allowed to run services if they win a contract. They must deliver the routes, fares, timetables and standards agreed, receiving their fee, but passing the ticket revenues back to the authority. It’s a step below full public ownership of the buses, seeing private operators bidding to run tightly controlled services with the lowest bidder tending to win the contract. But it leaves public bodies in control of the management of integrated transport networks, and leads to vastly superior outcomes than the free-for-all systems that previously existed outside the capital.

[Read more: Who really owns TfL?]

Since buses were deregulated by Margaret Thatcher, the number of journeys has declined. In Greater London, where a regulatory body was maintained, the system has flourished and the number of journeys increased. Now the rest of the country could have the opportunity to catch up.

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Burnham introduced the so-called Bee Network in September, the first franchised services established outside London in decades. The policy helped to increase his majority in the 2021 mayoral election. Every other Labour metro mayor is also moving towards public control.

Labour is now committed to expanding franchising powers to all councils (not just regional bodies) and lifting the current ban on local authorities establishing publicly owned bus companies. While incredibly popular, this approach comes with risks. For the party to make a success of this policy in government, it must not have a business-as-usual approach.

Watch: Andrew Marr discusses why Keir Starmer needs to offer more to the country

Years of profit-seeking have chipped away at drivers’ pay and conditions, sparking a retention crisis that hinders operators’ ability to deliver all advertised services on time. If private operators can offer cheaper contract bids by undermining workers, franchised services could turn up later than ever. In France, drivers are often employed directly through the council. For Labour, this would mean workers have a secure employer to deliver fairer contracts, even when franchises change hands.

There’s a lot, too, that could be learned from West Yorkshire, a mayoral authority which is at a key stage in the process of setting up a publicly controlled franchising network. Residents are being consulted on the authority’s plans. A West Yorkshire poll by Survation carried out for We Own It showed that 76 per cent agree with having representatives from local businesses, community groups and drivers on a transport board.

Having adopted the language of public control, an incoming Labour government must change how services are planned so that local people feel their concerns are actually taken on board. Council-controlled utilities in Europe, such as Paris Water, have representatives from their workers’ organisations, civil society and the general public on their boards.

In contrast, Greater Manchester’s Bee Network committee, which oversees franchised services, is made up entirely of local politicians. Only 10 per cent are women. Labour must not miss any more opportunities to improve services for us all by widening participation. Grassroots groups representing women or disabled people should hold seats on governing bodies. That way, new networks would be more likely to prioritise timetables that take a variety of passenger needs into consideration. Rather than simply shuffling employees to city or town centres, new orbital routes might connect up neighbourhoods, and better link the diffuse sites of care work. Promoting convenience for all, not just rush-hour commuters, should be embedded into the system.

For decades, operators’ monopoly power left bus passengers with no recourse to improve services. Many have given up contacting ineffectual complaints departments. On Burnham’s Bee Network, however, passengers can report bad journeys simply, through the system’s app. This information can be used by the local transport authority to judge if operators are failing to meet their obligations, but franchising must have stringent enforcement regimes to punish these breaches. In West Yorkshire, 78 per cent want to be able to fine or ban bad operators from the region.

Mayors campaigned hard for failing rail companies to return to public hands after years of abysmal service. Under current plans, franchising could leave bus passengers in the lurch if operators fail. A majority of the public back plans to have a publicly owned operator of last resort, as with rail, to guarantee services keep running even when companies have failed in their duties to passengers.

But without funding for re-municipalisation, Labour’s popular pledge to allow council-owned operators could ring hollow, belying its government-in-waiting narrative. Overstretched authorities simply do not have the cash to grow new businesses alone. It’s one thing having the power to initiate a policy, quite another to have the necessary resources.

Across Europe, public control is near universal. The UK’s public transport systems are privatised outliers. As Labour prepares to take back control of local transport, it must navigate its way past these pitfalls to deliver a system that truly works for people, not profit.

[Read more: Municipal bus companies – Can public ownership be profitable?]

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