As privatisation became the new doctrine of British politics in the mid-1980s, bus deregulation was championed by Margaret Thatcher’s second administration with fervent enthusiasm. “Competition provides the opportunity for lower fares, new services, more passengers,” sang a Department for Transport buses white paper in 1984. “Without the stifling hand of restrictive regulation… new and improved services would be provided,” it suggested. “If one operator fails to provide a desired service, another will.”
It all turned out to be ideologically driven nonsense. As the same department reported in 2021, handing the running of buses over to market forces led to higher fares, reduced ridership, and a reduction in valued services, particularly in rural areas. Only London, where bus services are publicly regulated, has avoided the inevitable consequences of a profit-driven division in pursuit of shareholder value.
This week, in Greater Manchester, some of that damage will start to be undone. From this weekend, the region’s buses will begin to be taken back under public control, as part of a new franchising system. Routes will still be operated by contracted private operators. But the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will decide where, when, and at what cost. All fare revenue will go back to Transport for Greater Manchester, the transport arm of the GMCA.
Public control is not a guaranteed solution to all problems, after a prolonged period of declining numbers on buses. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, hopes that the costs, such as maintaining capped £2 fares until at least September next year, and purchasing bus depots that were sold off during privatisation, will be offset by increased ridership. That remains to be seen. However, there are valid reasons to believe that a cheaper, more connected, and simpler service, in which cross-subsidies can ensure a comprehensive service on less profitable routes, will be both popular and well-used.
If Greater Manchester’s electrified Bee Network, which will eventually integrate buses, bikes, and trams, becomes a game-changer and a model, it would be greatly welcomed for multiple reasons. England’s cities – excluding London – are burdened with some of the worst public transport systems in Europe. But recent controversies over clean air zones have highlighted the need for appealing alternatives to car usage, which remains the default option in much of the country. The reduction of bus services based solely on commercial grounds has also resulted in greater social and economic isolation, limiting opportunities for the elderly and those without other means of transportation. Publicly regulated buses will finally allow for greater accountability in relation to a service that is essential to the daily quality of life for many passengers. The GMCA will be the ultimate authority.
Mr Burnham’s decision to regain control was made possible by the Bus Services Act 2017, which allowed mayoral combined authorities to argue for franchising. It was strongly opposed by operators such as Stagecoach, who initiated a judicial review that delayed implementation. However, this weekend, distinctive yellow Bee Network buses will be introduced in Wigan, Bolton, and parts of Salford and Bury. A 40-year experiment in the market delivered the opposite of what its advocates