photo of man sitting inside bus
Photo by Mediocre Studio on Unsplash

Despite their importance to areas across the country, millions of bus miles and routes are lost each year. The system is stacked against local authorities, let alone the communities who rely on our most used form of public transport. If taking buses back into public ownership isn’t an immediately realistic option as a result of how they were sold, what can be done?

In big metropolitan areas like London and Greater Manchester you can, as Andy Burnham is proving, force a situation where you effectively cross-subsidise bus services and parcel up profit-making routes with loss-making routes, and force operators to run buses on both. It is a good option, but isn’t a panacea and won’t be anywhere near as possible for large areas of the country.

This would effectively just re-create the rail franchise system for buses, and we’ve all seen the downsides of that system in recent months and years.

Nevertheless, moves made by Greater Manchester to bring buses back under public control will have definitely made the bus companies sit up and take notice – as evidenced by the money they will have thrown at seeking to block the development. Schemes such as the current flat £2 fare will also help bring back passengers lost, but it is clear we will need more in our armoury to build bus networks capable of supporting local economic rebuilding and green our economy.

Set within a context of a genuine levelling up agenda and building of community power, one answer may be to correct the situation by which people can protect a bus stop as a community asset but not do anything to influence whether a bus will ever stop there. Through the extension of community asset legislation, we could move to develop ‘Community Asset Bus Routes’. This would protect much-needed bus routes so that if a company wishes to remove or shorten the route, there would be additional processes in place rather than the current situation which could see the route disappear overnight.

Even under the current community asset legislation, this would mean there would be a time delay of a number of months before the operator could take the route away. Like when threatened with the loss of a cherished pub or park, this would afford crucial time for the community to mount vocal opposition, give local authorities longer to find other operators, or indeed see alternative provision from not-for-profit community transport operators. This relatively minor change could see the relationship between local authority, community and bus operators change for the better.

Over many years we have been repeatedly told that local bus markets are broken, that it is uneconomical, and there are too few dominant bus operators who undoubtedly have the majority of chips in their hands. On top of the protecting what we currently have as community assets, as a country we must begin the build a new future for our buses. Moves to bring about greater public control must be part of that, as to might the need to think about the type of businesses we wish to see in the bus industry.

Co-operatives and not-for-profit community organisations often thrive in place of broken private markets. We should look to build a new set of bus operators using these business models. More inclusive, non-private-profit driven operators will have a different outlook on the services they are entrusted to deliver. This new generation of operators and new industry, focused on reinvestment than shareholder dividend, will more easily fit with the needed increase in national financial support for the industry. More of the same from our bus industry will not green our country, encourage modal shift and integration, or give the maximum support possible to local economic development. We should look beyond the current bus industry and its operators, and build the one we need for the future set within community power.