Workers outside of London and the south east are set to lose as much as a third of their local bus services this spring, as private bus operators move to protect their profits now the government’s Covid subsidies are drying up.
Bus usage reduced sharply through lockdown, when people were advised where possible to avoid public transport. Government responded by granting emergency subsidies to the operators to keep them afloat during the crisis. But on 5 April, even though passenger numbers still only stand at about 70 percent of pre-Covid levels, the government plans to scrap the special subsidies. As a result, as many as 5,000 provincial bus routes are for the chop.
In fact, the underinvestment in bus services in England and Wales predates the pandemic by a long way: the period 2010 to 2018 alone saw a 45 percent decline in funding. And what funding there has been has been concentrated in London, with provincial cities and rural areas starved of investment.
“Transport spending per person in London is £1,019 a year, figures show. But in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – the north west, the north east, Yorkshire and the Humber – it is £417. In the ‘Midlands Engine’ – the East and West Midlands – it is just £337. The East Midlands had the lowest level of investment per person (£245), followed by the south west (£290) and then Yorkshire and the Humber (£315).” (Thousands of bus networks ‘have been wiped off the map’ thanks to Tory cuts by Keir Mudie, Daily Mirror, 27 January 2019)
At a time when the government is supposedly committed to getting people out of cars and onto public transport it is simultaneously pulling the plug on bus services, using ‘Covid’ as a convenient smokescreen to cover up a longstanding failure to invest in public services.
The impact on many people’s lives of losing bus services is incalculable, especially the elderly and infirm and those living in isolated areas.
The private bus operators are agitating for a temporary extension of the pandemic subsidy, with the implied threat that if this is not forthcoming thousands of bus routes will be sacrificed.
The real solution to the crisis, however, would be to renationalise the bus industry and fund it as an essential national public service for all, neither as a playground for private operators nor a special preserve of the metropolis alone.