Saturday, 31 July 2021

Decline in bus services

 Earlier this month, Rebecca Riddell of SP Energy Networks and human rights campaigners Philip Alston and Bassam Khawaja published a report on the outcome of the Thatcher privatisation of bus services in England and Wales. Mark Valladares commented on Liberal Democrat Voice

as someone who lives in a village which lost its last scheduled bus service a decade or so ago, you might not be surprised that I took rather more interest than might otherwise be the case.

But, of course, it’s not just small, rural villages that are now cut off from the bus network. As the authors note, some 3.34 million people could not reach any food stores within fifteen minutes by public transport. That adds costs for the rural poor, adds traffic to the roads and leads to those who can’t drive for whatever reason to be forced towards larger communities in order to function more easily.

Interestingly, the “right to public transport” is emphasised. Now, I might once have thought that, amidst the rights that people should have, public transport might not be high on the list but consider this;

  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1976, obligates the government to promote realization of the rights to work, healthcare, education, social security, food, and an adequate standard of living.
  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the United Kingdom ratified in 2009, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to transportation on an equal basis with others.
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1986, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure the right of women in rural areas to enjoy adequate living conditions, including in relation to transport.

I must, in fairness, exclude London, Scotland and Wales from relative criticism. Each of these jurisdictions has much more power over bus services than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and it is notable that bus services have expanded and fares remained relatively accessible. But when bus fares have risen by an average 403% since 1997, you can see how bus services elsewhere have gone into a seeming death spiral – higher fares lead to rider figures falling, which leads to growing unviability of routes, which leads to unreliable erratic services, which leads to lower rider figures…

The report makes five recommendations;

  • embrace public control of bus services
  • guarantee access to public transport
  • support local authorities
  • ensure affordability
  • combat climate change with a strong bus system

I fear Mark is too sanguine about the situation in Wales. Both the Welsh government and some local authorities (including Neath Port Talbot) had cut back on support for bus services even before the pandemic cut a swathe through even the profitable ones. So it would need more than a return to public ownership to achieve the report's aims.

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