Off the buses

I have written and spoken many times about the disastrous legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation – she called it ‘deregulation’ – of our bus services.

The result has been passengers and routes cut by a third and increased congestion on our roads, with big additional costs for business – and, therefore, in the prices we all pay in the shops.  It has also meant a reduction in the abilities of family and friends to care for relatives and in the ability of young people to travel to enjoy their recreation for education, sport and leisure. Undoubtedly, it has made a contribution to attendances at Sheffield’s excellent sporting facilities, as recently reported.

Buses account for some 60% of all public transport journeys in England, more than the trains and underground combined, with nearly 5bn passenger trips. But because of the Conservative government’s cuts, more than 3000 bus routes have been cut altogether or reduced in the last 5 years.

I’m very pleased that Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis has asked me to lead an inquiry as to how to improve bus services in South Yorkshire. I welcome all contributions.

Boris Johnson recently said:

“A good bus service can make all the difference to your job,, to your life, to your ability to get to the doctor, to the liveability of your town or your village, and to your ability to stay there and have a family there and start a business there.”

Unsurprisingly, I agree with every word of that. Perhaps his experience of London buses, where a franchise system operates, unlike the rest of England, made a difference to his thinking.

Mind you, Matt Chorley of The Times reminded us this week that Mr Johnson bus interests go wider than just that. As Matt wrote:

“Boris Johnson won’t stop going on about them, declaring in several interviews this week and in his conference speech, that he is “a bit of a bus nut”.

He certainly has history with buses: ordering expensive, impractical Routemasters for London, writing questionable claims about £350 million down the side of a luxury coach and throwing his old mate Dave under a bus when it suited him.

Then there is his weird hobby of making model buses, as he revealed during the leadership contest and wheeled out again this week: “I like to make and paint inexact models of buses with happy passengers inside.” Why all this interest in buses all of a sudden?”

So, last week, in the House of Commons, I asked the Government Minister of the Day (Dominic Raab):

“On 27 July in Manchester, the Prime Minister said he wanted to bring northern cities’ bus services up to the same level as London’s.

Bus services are really important to my constituents. The problem is that, currently, Government funding for bus services is £75 a head in London but £5 a head in Sheffield.

Although the Chancellor has announced a further £200 million for bus services, it would take half that money to bring Sheffield’s funding level alone up to London’s.

Are the Government really going to fund the better bus services the Prime Minister promised for northern cities such as Sheffield, or have we again had a grand announcement from the Prime Minister that, on detailed examination, simply is not worth the paper it is written on?”

It is only fair to give his answer:

“I say to the hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, that we are absolutely committed to boosting bus services in his constituency and indeed infrastructure right across the country. That includes transport, that includes broadband, and that means making sure that we have a more balanced economy that can boost jobs, reduce deprivation and ensure we can fund the precious public services we need. On the specific point he raised, I will ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to write to him personally.”

I’m still waiting for the Secretary of State to answer. I’m realistic enough to believe that there is a gulf between what Mr Johnson says and what he does.

Money isn’t the only thing that will improve bus services in South Yorkshire, but it is the No 1 issue on the list.

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