Unite, representing over 70,000 bus workers, has warned that the government’s new national bus strategy, published today (Monday March 15) will go nowhere near reversing a decade’s worth of cuts to services that have left communities isolated. Furthermore Unite believes it could also unleash more employment instability across the industry.
The 30-plus years deregulation experiment – where the free market dictated bus routes has been an unmitigated failure. And while Unite said that the bus strategy is a ‘welcome admission’, it added that the solutions proposed may not significantly improve bus services.
Unite welcomed the proposals to allow councils to introduce franchising or entering into enhanced partnerships with operators – which will help to remove the cut-throat competition on profitable routes, but is concerned that such measures will neither be uniform nor compulsory.
Proposals to reduce ticketing prices, to allow for contactless payments and move towards greener buses are welcome moves – but Unite says that it’s highly disappointing the strategy fails to introduce minimum standards for bus drivers’ pay and conditions; and ignores the growing crisis of fatigue which results in accidents and leads to long-term health problems for drivers.
There are also serious questions about the funding behind the bus strategy. While large amounts are promised, actual new funding that is immediately available appears to be limited. Unite believes the new investment will not reverse cuts by cash-starved local authorities, which have resulted in the withdrawal or reduction in service of over 3,000 bus services since 2010.
A large percentage of local authorities no longer spend anything on supporting bus services, leading to social exclusion and reduced connectivity, especially in rural communities.
The union is also disappointed that the strategy fails to allow council’s or groups of councils to operate their own services which Unite believes is the key measure in operating an efficient bus service which properly serves local communities and tackles the chronic lack of connectivity in the UK.
But there’s alarm too over the government’s support for on-demand app based services, which it believes will lead to the “Uber-isation” of bus operations – and will create a two-tier bus service, exclude vulnerable groups, damage timetabled services and result in unhealthy competition between competing bus operators.
Unite also understands that trials of app-based services have been a failure, as passengers frequently experienced long delays before reaching their destination as other passengers were dropped off first. For example a 20 minute journey could take over two hours on a non-timetabled service.
“Travel by bus is still the most popular mode of transport in the country, connecting communities, helping people get to shops, school and work,” commented Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton.
“So it is extremely important that the services are stable, affordable and well-run. This strategy is a missed opportunity to achieve that goal.
‘De-regulation has been complete failure’
“The National Bus Strategy is an admission that the 1980s deregulation of the bus service has been a complete failure. Fares have increased, services have reduced, private operators cherry-pick the most profitable routes and social exclusion has mushroomed as connectivity has been cut.
“The National Bus Strategy attempts to address these issues but specifically excludes the best solution which would be to allow local authorities to work together to operate their own services.
“While the franchising and enhanced partnership plans should help to reduce some of the worst excesses of the privatised bus system such proposals must be compulsory or it will result in improvements in some areas while others are left behind,” Morton said.
Fatigue is a major worry among bus drivers. Morton continued, “All franchising and enhanced partnerships must include strict rules about bus drivers’ pay and conditions to ensure bus driving is an attractive profession and that problems caused by fatigue due to excessive hours are tackled.
“While the national bus strategy talks about major funding, there appears to be little new money being provided and what is available does not replace what has been removed from bus services as a result of over a decade of Conservative cuts.
“Proposals to introduce an app based on demand service are misguided, it will result in the ‘Uber-isation’ of services, leading to ‘Wacky Races’ on our roads as companies compete to collect passengers.
“App-based services will also result in the casualisation of drivers’ employment and will be an expensive two-tier service with passengers who are not digitally literate being excluded,” he added.
By Barckley Sumner