25 April 2019

They might bore the bubble, but buses matter

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Jeremy Corbyn is out on the campaign trail for the upcoming local elections and has today unveiled plans to reverse cuts to 3,000 local bus services by raising £1.3bn from Vehicle Excise Duty. The Labour Party argue the bus routes are a lifeline for communities and have suffered as a result of Conservative Party austerity. It’s a big policy announcement, but have you heard about it?

The Labour Press Team sent a tweet yesterday criticising the BBC for not wanting to cover the announcement on the Today programme, although it did feature on the 6 o’clock bulletin. I have no idea what the logic of the show’s producers was – there are many different reasons why a story may or may not feature. Labour seem to think it’s because the show’s editors are “out of touch”, too focused on the Westminster bubble to report on the concerns of people in the rest of the country.

I’ve never been full convinced by BBC bias claims – on either side – but Labour might have a point about the broader bubble. When Jeremy Corbyn stands up at Prime Ministers Questions and talks about a letter he has received from Brenda in Barnsley who has written to him about the cancellation of the 42a bus route, groans echo around the chamber. With Brexit chaos, failing Grayling, and Tory infighting, why is the Labour leader wasting his precious questions on bus routes?

The simple answer is because they matter.

Londoners might complain about diversions caused by hippies on Waterloo Bridge, but most of them have no idea how good they’ve got it. According to figures from the Department for Transport, London received a staggering 43.6 per cent of the public spending on local public transport in 2016/17. That is compared to 2.1 per cent for the whole of Wales.

The bus stop at the end of my road in Camberwell serves eight different buses (at least half of which run 24 hours). I can get directly to at least four major train stations, Shepherds Bush, Oxford Street, Kensington, and a decent fraction of south London, all for £1.50. Thanks to the Hopper fare, I can take as many bus journeys as I like within an hour without paying for more than one journey.

If I go home, as I did over the Easter break, I have significantly fewer options. Head to the end of my mum’s street and I’m looking at two buses – both of which do a small loop around the town. They’re less regular, slower, and more expensive. You’re looking at £2.70 for a single, nearly £4 if you want to come back. And that’s assuming you don’t want to travel on a Sunday. I learnt to drive as soon as I could, otherwise I would have struggled getting to college on time or to my Saturday job.

I’m not from the sticks. I’m talking about an industrial town of over 80,000 people, not a far-flung village. People living in rural areas have a much tougher time of it, with many places cut off from all public transport networks. Some of not-London has a decent public transport system, Manchester’s tram network has grown massively in the last decade (finally reaching the airport) and Nottingham – where Corbyn headed today to launch Labour’s new policy – has a good mixture of buses and trams. But for vast swathes of the country, the public transport systems people relied upon have disappeared.

One of the key things about public transport is it is used overwhelmingly by people at the lower end of the income scale. According to figures published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in January, people in the lowest income households make three out of four public transport trips by bus. People with access to private transport (i.e. own a car) make just 4 per cent of their journeys by bus. For those without, it’s 43 per cent. For many users, taking a bus isn’t an eco-conscious way to get around, its their only option.

The reason many bus routes were cut was low passenger numbers, with local authorities subsidising the private bus companies in order to keep the routes open. When budget cuts came, the bus routes proved unsustainable. But these passengers are some of the most vulnerable in society – the elderly, disabled, and single parents – and while Labour’s plan won’t fix this problem, I’d argue much more needs to be done to make public transport a realistic alternative to driving a car, for these voters its reassuring to see Labour talking the talk.

While the Conservative Party seek to stab themselves – and each other – in the back on a daily basis, Labour are taking a step away from the Brexit confusion and reaching out the voters on the bread and butter issues that effect their daily lives. If Labour win the next election it won’t be because voters are rampant socialists, it’ll be because parents can’t get their kids to school, people can’t get to work on time, and old ladies are trapped at home because the bus routes keep disappearing.

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Emma Revell is Communications Manager at the Institute for Economic Affairs