Building a bus network
Jack Sargeant MS
The 1985 Transport Act was the single worst moment in the history of bus transport for passengers across the UK, and it still regulates the industry in Wales today.
Once powers over bus travel were devolved, Ken Skates MS looked to scrap the impact of this Thatcherite legislation in Wales. Unfortunately, elections and Covid obstructed these plans. Ken’s bold agenda was ahead of its time, but Wales is still seeking to re-regulate the bus industry, with Manchester’s Metro Mayor Andy Burnham looking to follow suit.
The below is why I feel we need to act quickly if we are to build a bus network that gets people where they need to be. The lack of decisive action from successive Governments which have sort to improve things within the confines of the Act is why we are in the mess we find ourselves in today.
The 1986 Transport Act set out to make profit the sole reason a bus route should exist. This means that we plan our bus network almost entirely around lucrative routes. Councils can subsidise routes, but this diminishes dwindling council budgets, and after more than ten years of austerity you can guess the resulting outcome.
Most people would want a planned bus network built around getting people where they need to be and encouraging us to use busses. Sadly, this concept of public good was so offensive to the then Tory Government that they passed this law to prohibit such attempts. The Act also set up complicated competition mechanisms to ensure no provider attempted to run a route just because it was in the public interest.
The Act likewise favours certain types of bus company. It has specific clauses that effectively further punish municipal bus companies, stopping what the zealots that wrote it saw as “monopolies.” Their concern being municipal bus companies may use profitable routes to subsidise less profitable ones. Something the rest of us would surely want a bus company to do.
Municipal bus companies are the arm’s length companies set up by council transport departments that ran busses before the act. There are hardly any left in the UK, but two remain in Wales located in Cardiff and Newport. Other private providers can use the Act to accuse these companies of uncompetitive practices. This can result in significant fines for practices like providing bus services on routes that they aren’t making a profit on. This has served to cause routes to be cancelled and everyone who used them to be inconvenienced.
The result, of all this nonsense is less services, poorer pay and conditions for drivers and less money to invest in new busses.
Recently, I was on the picket supporting drivers who were paid less the colleagues in the neighbouring depot. This is ridiculous, but certainly an intentioned outcome for the champions of privatisation that wrote the Act.
Far from this free market centred chaos, what we actually want is bus routes driven by community need and the requirements of our local economies. Ken Skates was ahead of the curve on this one and now he has stepped back from government for a period, I really hope his former colleagues understand the urgency.
Jack Sargeant is the Senedd member for Alyn and Deeside