Report by ex-UN rapporteur highlights failures of bus privatisation

A new report from former UN special rapporteur, Philip Alston, highlights the utter failure of bus privatisation in the UK, making a scathing critique of Britain’s ‘expensive, unreliable, fragmented, and dysfunctional bus system.’ The 45-page report demonstrates how privatisation has led to decline in quality as prices continue to rise, and the wider effects of our broken bus services on people across the country.

‘Public Transport, Private Profit’ (PTPP) was developed by Alston, former UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, alongside Bassam Khawaja and Rebecca Riddell, co-directors of the Human Rights and Privatization Project. The Human Rights and Privatization Project is a part of the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice, in New York University’s law school.

As this report reminds us, the Thatcher government privatised buses in the 1980s on the basis that free market competition would lead to ‘lower fares, new services, more passengers.’ Yet today, Britain is faced with quite the opposite. Now buses are ‘slower, less reliable and costlier to run’, as the Department for Transport puts it. So where did it all go wrong? Well, far from the meritocratic “race to the top” free marketeers claim to believe in, in which the best service for the best price is developed to outcompete one’s rivals, privatisation has created for the buses what it has for so many other industries, a race to the bottom.

Since the privatisation of our buses, we have seen companies working to cut costs as much as possible, pursuing greatest private profit, not greatest public service. It is more profitable to cut services while raising ticket prices, squeezing those of us who rely on public transport as far as it is possible. Quality service is not the priority.

As PTPP explains, ‘According to Transport for Quality of Life, bus companies across Britain averaged an operating profit of £297 million per year in the ten years prior to 2013—almost all of which was paid out in dividends to shareholders, a revenue “leakage” of £2.8 billion over that period.’ The money Britain’s bus staff generate at work barely goes into improving our bus services, retained profits making up ‘just 0.2 to 1.5 percent of turnover,’ according to that same study.

In light of our bus services’ shambolic state, the Conservatives have promised change. As part of ‘bus back better’, the government will be introducing a price cap, as well as £3 billion of ‘unprecedented funding.’ The Department for Transport adds, however, ‘we need councils to work closely with operators, and the government, to develop the services of the future.’

So Britain finds itself in a situation in which the government is spending billions on buses, and local councils are to be responsible for ensuring good local service, leaving one to wonder why they are not just in public control. If, as the Tories are suggesting, neither the funding nor the management of the bus services are being left entirely to the private owners, then these capitalists serve only to be an obstacle to any councillors serious about quality public transport, and to take the majority of money made as their own.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport – representing private bus operators – says that the goals of reliable, well equipped buses, and competitive pricing are something everyone shares. ‘These are best delivered where operators and local authorities work in partnership without local people having to take on the financial risk and cost of council control.’ The Confederation here argues that council control is a risk to the public’s finances, yet it would appear a system of private operators is the greater risk. If a local council were to make a harmful decision, say increase the price of tickets way beyond the quality of service provided, or make a portion of their staff redundant to cover costs, there is at least some accountability as said councillors may lose voters’ support. Leaving control in the hands of private operators is surely a greater risk as they are unelected and unaccountable.

One key area PTPP has brought to light is the serious impact of the failed system on low-income households, rural communities, and the disabled. ‘Some 40 percent of people in the lowest income households do not have access to a car,’ explains the report, ‘and those on lower incomes take the highest number of bus trips. Such individuals can face severe barriers to public transport and are heavily impacted by rising costs and service cuts.’ These circumstances can play a major role in keeping working people in poverty, especially when there is limited choice of bus company in any given area, with a single company monopoly on some routes. The choice of company is no great benefit either, most are similarly expensive and similarly poor quality. If one is spending as much as a quarter of their income on public transport, as one 2019 study found, you just can’t afford to save.

For people with disabilities, public transport is by far the most common means of travel. However, PTPP says ‘bus cuts and poor service have made them difficult to rely on. Some disability rights experts and organizations said that the deregulated bus system was especially problematic for people with disabilities because they cannot rely on a single standard of accessible service across Britain, and must depend on each individual operator’s approach.’

It is not just the customers who are suffering either, it is the bus workers too. Recent events at Go North West in Manchester, where the company tried to “fire and rehire” staff on worse terms, demonstrate the impact of profit-first owners on our bus services. Private operators will take any chance they can to cut costs, be it decreasing annual wages by thousands, or tearing up sick pay. Only through prolonged strike action were bosses held to account for their blatant attack on workers’ rights.

‘Public Transport, Private Property’ was received positively by RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, saying ‘This report is completely right in its assessment that privatisation and deregulation has created a bus network which is “expensive, unreliable and dysfunctional” and does not work for passengers.’ Lynch said the government should ‘stop caving to the private operators… reverse the ban on new municipal bus companies, and provide sufficient ringfenced national funding for all local authorities to deliver the bus services their local communities require.’

Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Manchester Branch

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