As privatisation became the new dogma of British politics in the mid-1980s, bus deregulation was championed by Margaret Thatcher’s second administration with evangelical zeal. “Competition provides the opportunity for lower fares, new services, more passengers,” hymned a Department for Transport buses white paper in 1984. “Without the dead hand of restrictive regulation … new and better services would be provided,” it suggested. “If one operator fails to provide a service that is wanted, another will.”
It all turned out to be ideologically driven bunkum. As the same department reported in 2021, handing the running of buses over to market forces led to higher fares, reduced ridership and a cull of valued services, particularly in rural areas. Only London, where bus services are publicly regulated, has escaped the inevitable consequences of a profit-driven carve-up in pursuit of shareholder value.
This week, in Greater Manchester, some of that damage will start to be undone. From this weekend, the region’s buses will begin to be taken back under public control, as part of a new franchising system. Routes will still be run by contracted private operators. But where, when and for how much will be decided by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). All fare revenue will go back to Transport for Greater Manchester, the transport arm of the GMCA.
Public control is not an automatic panacea for all problems, after a prolonged period of declining numbers on buses. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, will hope that costs such as maintaining capped £2 fares until at least September next year, and buying up bus depots sold off during privatisation, will be sufficiently offset by increased ridership. That remains to be seen. But there are good grounds for betting that a cheaper, more joined-up and simpler service, in which cross-subsidies can ensure a comprehensive service on less commercial routes, will be both popular and well-patronised.
If Greater Manchester’s electrified Bee Network, eventually integrating bus, bike and tram, were to become a game-changer and a model, that would be hugely welcome for multiple reasons. England’s cities – outside London – are saddled with some of the worst public transport systems in Europe. But recent controversy over clean air zones has highlighted the need for attractive alternatives to car use, which remains the default option in much of the country. The cutting of bus services on purely commercial grounds has also led to greater social and economic isolation, restricting opportunities for the elderly and those without other means of getting around. Publicly regulated buses will at last allow greater accountability in relation to a service that, for many passengers, is fundamental to their daily quality of life. The buck will stop with the GMCA.
Mr Burnham’s move to take back control was made possible by the Bus Services Act 2017, which permitted mayoral combined authorities to make the case for franchising. It was bitterly resisted by operators such as Stagecoach, who forced a judicial review that delayed implementation. But this weekend, distinctive yellow Bee Network buses will roll out in Wigan, Bolton and parts of Salford and Bury. A 40-year market experiment delivered the opposite of what its proponents had promised in the 1980s. Deregulation produced similarly dysfunctional outcomes in other sectors that are crucial to the common good. On the roads of Greater Manchester at least, a new era is belatedly beginning.