Unite has cautiously welcomed a recent government announcement to plough £5bn into bus services and cycle lanes in England over the next five years.
But the union warned that it won’t tolerate any race to the bottom on bus workers’ pay, terms and conditions as it highlighted the devastation bus services have faced under successive Tory governments.
Prime minister Boris Johnson today (February 11) put forward the funding package, alongside confirmation that the HS2 high-speed rail project would go ahead.
The £5bn investment will include 4,000 new zero-emissions buses, funding for more frequent services including evenings and weekends, ‘more affordable, simpler’ fares, and new priority schemes to reduce bus congestion, as well as 250 miles of new cycle lanes.
The announcement comes at a time when bus services outside London across England have been decimated by deregulation and austerity cuts. In the last decade alone, 3,000 bus routes have been either axed, reduced or altered.
Local authority spending on bus services has been slashed by £163m since 2009-10, accounting for a 43 per cent cut. Overall funding for buses, including from central government, has declined by £800m over the last decade.
Rural and coastal communities in particular have borne the brunt of cuts to bus services, according to a shock new report.
Published on Monday (February 10), the report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) revealed that large swathes of England are ‘transport deserts’ – communities where public transport is so poor that residents cannot conveniently go about their daily lives without being forced to drive.
The research found that the North East and South West were particularly hard hit by lack of public transport – more than half of the towns and cities in these regions are already transport deserts or are at serious risk of becoming one.
The statistics are grim – in the North East as whole, half of the local authorities there no longer spend any money on bus services connecting rural communities. In the South West, some towns with more than 10,000 people, such as Verwood in Dorset, have only one bus per hour to another major settlement in peak hours.
CPRE chief executive Crispin Truman argued that poor public transport has had a devastating impact on rural communities.
“A thriving countryside depends on well-connected small towns and villages serviced by low carbon public transport that fit into people’s everyday lives,” he said. “But it’s clear that, outside of England’s major cities, communities are being left high and dry in ever-widening transport deserts with completely inadequate bus and train connections.
“And this is having a dramatic effect on rural communities – young people are compelled to move away, older people are left isolated and lonely, while less affluent families can be sucked into a cycle of debt and poverty.”
‘Pinch of salt’
Responding to today’s funding announcement for buses, Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said the union is withholding judgement until it sees the details of the government’s proposals in full.
“This bus bonanza could herald a new dawn for passengers and those working in the industry, after a decade of neglect of this sector by successive Tory governments,” he said. “But we will need to look at the fine print before commenting more fully.”
“Should these ambitious plans come to fruition in the next five years, we will need to ensure that they do not come at the expense of the pay, and terms and conditions of our members,” he said. “We won’t tolerate any ‘race to the bottom’ in this respect.”
Morton said that “if Boris Johnson was serious” about improving bus services across England then “a good start would be to reverse the austerity measures which led to the axing of 3,000 routes in England alone, consequently cutting off people and communities from work, leisure and healthcare facilities”.
“Also, this statement needs to come with a health warning, given Boris Johnson’s record on his non-delivery of infrastructure projects – we only have to look at the garden bridge across the Thames when he was mayor of London which cost the taxpayer millions of pounds before it was abandoned,” he added. “His vaunted ‘Boris Island’ airport in the Thames estuary suffered a similar fate.
“We also fear that this announcement is tied into the expansion of HS2 and is being used to placate the Tory opponents of the rail project.
“For all these reasons, while welcoming this much-needed expansion in bus services, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”