Britain can’t level up without better buses

Buses are a lifeline for millions of people in our cities and city regions. Before Covid-19, buses transported more people than any other form of public transport and when our cities come back to life, buses will again be the main mode of transport for many citizens.

Nick Forbes 

We in local government know that buses can be the difference in whether someone can take a job enrol on to a college course or degree programme, or access the public services that they rely on. And we know too that unless we do something about air quality in our cities, the public health impacts of carbon emissions will get worse and worse.

Last year in England, bus passengers took three times as many journeys as railway users. According to public transport watchdog Transport Focus, more than half of passengers say that a bus is the only means of transport available to them. But the buses they catch are ageing, environmentally damaging and expensive. Bus journeys in our core cities often cost more per mile than bus journeys in London, where the network is controlled by the elected mayor, not the private sector.

When it comes to government support for big infrastructure projects, some things fall into the “sexy” category: aircraft carriers, high speed railways, new runways. But we must not forget the need to get young people to college, key workers to work and shoppers to the high street, particularly as we transition from lockdown. That is why now is the time to get serious about bus infrastructure — from policy, to pricing, to the quality of service. Central government has never had a proper strategy for making life better for bus passengers outside London. We need root-and-branch reform.

Buses are the arteries of the local economies on which the government is basing its levelling up agenda. Ensuring that opportunity is open to all means providing links between people and places. And it is on this basis that the core cities want to put political allegiances aside to capitalise on the government’s stated intention of a national bus strategy for England. Our cities, connected to the towns and villages surrounding us, will be the engines of prosperity.

Although bus usage is higher than other forms of public transport, the number of local journeys has declined in many cities. Deregulation as far back as 1986 created a policy environment that prioritised the provider over the service user, meaning less profitable routes cannot be subsidised by more profitable ones.

If bus use fails to recover after this crisis our towns and cities will be less green, less connected and less prosperous. We want to fix this, but without the say-so from central government, which means reforming the deregulation of buses at the national level, our hands are tied.

In Newcastle we need to increase the price difference between car and bus journeys, to make the greener option more appealing. Some cities have already made these changes: in London a bus journey costs £1.50, but in Newcastle it can cost £3.60 or more. We need the powers to address this at a local level, rather than being handcuffed to regional or national strategies.

Even with Covid-19 restrictions, encouraging people to use the bus removes cars from the road. We can address air quality issues only if we can shift people away from cars and on to buses. A National Bus Strategy could help to accelerate our carbon emission reductions, reducing the health problems associated with highly-polluting vehicles. It could also boost productivity by reducing congestion, and provide access to education for people wanting to retrain.

Connecting people to cities is one way the UK can unleash its potential. That can start with buses. As the leader of Newcastle city council, I invite the prime minister — a self-confessed fan of buses — to Tyne and Wear to take a ride on the bus with me. He can hear directly from citizens about the need for a revolution to address the discrepancies in cost between core cities and London, and allow us to connect people with opportunities to work, study and play.

As the government’s emergency subsidies for the bus industry are scaled down, let’s take this opportunity to transform this life-enhancing, neglected policy area, once and for all.

Cllr Nick Forbes is the leader of Newcastle city council and an executive member of Core Cities UK