The 168 bus was a lifeline across southern Manchester. Pascale Robinson, who lived beside one of its stops, talks of the “huge blow” when it stopped running in 2019. “There was a massive campaign to save the route because it connected widowers with cemeteries, kids to schools, patients to hospitals. It allowed people to have a rich life.”
The route was one of 33 cut across the city due to “increasing costs”. Robinson was outraged enough to start the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign to renationalise services. She lambasts the UK’s privatised bus network as “illogical, expensive, unreliable and incoherent”.
The campaign succeeded. Last week, Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham announced that all the city’s buses would be brought under public control if, as expected, he wins re-election on May 6. His pledge does not come cheap: £135m over a five-year transition period to ease out private companies while warding off legal challenges.
Robinson believes Burnham’s vision has significance beyond Manchester. “It’s the first time since Margaret Thatcher deregulated the buses that the dogma of privatisation has been challenged,” she says. “We would love to see other regions follow in his footsteps.” If Labour wins the new West Yorkshire mayoralty in May, expect to see a similar scheme, says the party’s candidate, Tracy Brabin.
The privatisation of buses in 1986 was one of Margaret Thatcher’s most significant stamps on society. She was widely (and wrongly) quoted as saying, “a man who beyond the age of 26 finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”. This perception stuck, even if her break-up of the National Bus Company was supposed to herald more competition and cheaper tickets.
The reality has fallen short: five companies carry 70 per cent of all passengers in the UK. The RAC Foundation says in the last decade, fares have risen 76 per cent. Only in London, where buses remain under mayoral control, have journey numbers risen. Elsewhere, routes have disappeared: the Campaign for Better Transport calculates that 3,000 bus services have gone in a decade.
For the 19 per cent of the population with no access to a car — especially those on lower incomes in areas with poor rail links — this has been devastating. As people have turned to cars, shops have moved to out-of-town retail parks and those reliant on buses have been left behind.
While Labour-run Manchester is planning to take over the buses, it is the Conservatives who are doing the most to reverse Thatcher’s deregulation, inspired by the post-Brexit shift in their voting base to less affluent voters. The government recently published its national bus strategy, advocating “enhanced partnerships” between operators and local councils.
Norman Baker, of the Campaign for Better Transport, thinks the approach will result in improved services, but argues for more money. “Over the past 10 years, many [smaller] local authorities have been hollowed out. They simply don’t have the expertise to run complex bus services. It’s fine for Manchester, Birmingham or York to run a franchising system.”
Some believe the strategy doesn’t go far enough. Lisa Nandy, the Labour frontbencher, argues for more local control. “I’ll keep talking about buses until I see some of this start to change. The only way, in the end, it’s going to start to change is if those decisions are made far, far closer to home,” she says.
Ironically, the person doing the most to end the free-for-all era of services catered for purely by the market is Boris Johnson. Inspired by his eight years as London mayor when he often spoke of the benefits of buses, the prime minister has professed confusion as to why others do not feel the same way.
“They get teenagers to college. They drive pensioners to see their friends. They connect people to jobs they couldn’t otherwise take,” Johnson wrote in the bus strategy paper. “They sustain town centres, they strengthen communities and they protect the environment. They are lifelines and they are liberators.”
Whether in the energy market or frictionless trade with Europe, Johnson is doing his best to overturn Thatcher’s legacy. Even more oddly, the Conservative party appears to be along for the ride.