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Privatised buses can’t cope with Covid – we need public ownership

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A third of all bus routes could be lost across the country leaving communities and commuters stranded without vital transport links.

Bus operators are calling for the government to extend emergency funding beyond the April deadline, until passenger numbers return. The government should provide support to ensure that services people rely on can continue.

But the best long-term solution for the bus industry is public ownership.

Since the start of the pandemic bus services outside of London have been supported by the government to compensate for the collapse in passenger numbers. Much of that support has gone to operators in the form of Bus Recovery Grants. This scheme is due to end on 5 April but passenger numbers remain at only at 70% of pre-covid levels. Operators have to give 6 weeks’ notice before cancelling routes so many of them are already starting to make decisions about cuts.

Bus transport is a lifeline connecting communities to family and friends, jobs and amenities. Without it, those who can afford to will switch permanently to cars undermining the country’s commitment to climate action. Many of those who can’t afford cars, people in remote areas, or with mobility problems will be at risk of isolation. Communities, local economies and the environment will suffer too.

This is a short-term funding crisis with serious consequences. And it is building on a decades-long flaw in our public transport system. Outside of London, most bus services have been unregulated and privatised for decades. The result is that ticket prices have rocketed while service quality has suffered and even before the pandemic the number of passenger journeys by bus fell 12 per cent between 1982 and 2020.

Workers have suffered too. 16,000 jobs were lost in the bus industry over the last decade. 2,000 of those were lost in the last year alone. And for those that remain, wages have plummeted, dropping 10 percent over the last year and falling below the level they were at 10 years ago.

Meanwhile in London, TfL faces devastating cuts because of a huge hole in its budget. London is the only major European capital that receives no central funding for its transport system. That means when the pandemic hit, it was particularly vulnerable. The government has provided short-term patches to prevent collapse, but no long-term solutions. The lack of sustainable funding means vital investment needed to tackle London’s air quality: walking and cycling infrastructure has already been cut. In the future, whole tube lines could be lost.

The common thread here is that the government is providing short-term patches to long-term problems. TfL needs a proper funding settlement so it can invest in infrastructure, services, and staff for the future.

Bus Recovery Grants were vital in helping the rest of the industry get through the first two years of the pandemic, but our bus system needs major structural change. The government has spent the last two years directly funding private operators. Now it’s time to ditch the half measures. Public ownership would ensure that popular routes which are profitable cross-subsidise vital but less profitable ones that serve more remote areas or passengers that have mobility issues. Publicly run buses like those in Nottingham and Reading already provide far better services and return a profit to the public sector without funding leaking out via shareholders dividends.

Short-term won’t cut it. This situation has been years in the making but we don’t have years to fix it. The government should take radical action now, or it wont just be bus operators facing a crisis.

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