I love a good election campaign. if it’s a General Election, you can see all these Spitting Image characters out on the street, constantly avoiding a slip up, media watching their every move. In local elections, we see candidates parading in hi-viz on a local litter pick. Or having a go at the local bus service. Easy pickings, so to speak.
In recent times, the advent of “Metro Mayors” has added a new dimension to the bus bashing. We can thank former Chancellor George Osborne for the creation of European-style elected Mayors. Such devolution gave the first wave of these regional politicians some powers over their local transport set-ups, and herein another level of potential “bus bashing”.
So we don’t want London-anything anymore. Except that’s exactly what the Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham does want, when it comes to local transport. And he’s developed a quite sophisticated, yet simple way of “bringing the people” with him. In what has hitherto been a pretty dire set of results for the Labour Party in local council elections, Burnham has romped home in Manchester, seemingly on the back of his plans to franchise the Manchester bus network. Why not have what London has, says Burnham. Well, the financial mess Transport for London has got itself into may not be what he means, but instead was seen basking in his most recent electoral triumph riding around on buses and trams telling us in his Twitter video that he won’t rest until it costs £1.50 like it does in London to make his journey, rather than £4-plus that it does in Manchester.
The problem with all of this is also the problem we saw over mass-politiking with Brexit. It’s often simple, populist rhetoric, when the issue is, as ever, more complex. People will see Burnham whipping up emotion that the buses of Manchester are nowhere near as good as in London, and such sentiment hits home. The problem is that people don’t want to – or have time to – consider the many nuances surrounding such soundbites. London has a bus network that costs a lot of money. Will Manchester taxpayers really feel that “levelling up” means bringing London-style council tax rises to supposedly provide “better bus services”? Will Manchester have a comprehensive congestion zone like London, which – wait for it – will bash the hard-working van drivers and others who’s lives depend on zipping around behind the wheel? Where is the extensive bus priority London bus users currently benefit from? Will it be heavily policed like London? You can paint the buses yellow (or orange) and pop a 70s-style GMPTE logo on them, but will it necessarily feel any better?
And yet, Burnham’s tub-thumping hits home. Not for him the partnership working contained as an option in the recently-released Bus Strategy for England. Only total public control will do. And he’s convinced the good folk of Manchester of this too.
But….and it’s a big but.
Apart from notable exceptions, the bus industry has generally, for years now, performed like a mid-table Championship football team. Nothing flash, the odd bit of clever skill, but mundane and not really going anywhere. At times, it’s lack of ambition and generally flat performance has been met with much “meh” from the public-at-large. The potential has always been there, of course, but it has plodded on, reliable mostly, but with little sense of vision. The industry has felt vulnerable to hostile innovators and disruptors and has often been unwilling or unable to force meaningful change. And it has often felt like the mode of last resort too many times. Easy pickings for politicians, car dealers and manufacturers of e-scooters, maybe. It may be too soon to predict the death of the omnibus, but what it does feel like is that the Bus Strategy really is of it’s moment and needs to deliver real, noticeable, tangible change.
If Andy Burnham has mastered the art of the Mayoral Swipe, the lesson of populist soundbiting is quickly being learnt by one of his colleagues – the newly-elected West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, who, two days into her new role, has also been on out the road, and tweeting her experiences.
There’s nowt like showing you’re a woman of the people by getting the bus to work, and of course this is to be commended. And Tracy’s tweet succinctly highlights some basic sentiments that many will chime with. I’ve no idea if the timetable issue is as it seems, but if so, it’s a sadly all too often seen own goal. The reference to 15 mins in the car versus an hour on the bus is another reason people often give for avoiding the bus. Where I live, I’m about 20 minutes from Wolverhampton, versus around an hour on the bus. But if the bus went the way I would drive, it wouldn’t pick up many people, and would thus be uncommercial to operate, requiring taxpayer subsidy. How would Tracy and her colleagues address this? Throw money at something that may or may not work? Divert resources from successful higher frequency services that, in turn, may make them less successful? The industry as a whole has always needed to do better, but it remains unclear as to how local authorities, politicians et al are actually going bring about this step change in bus service quality.
That’s not to say the status quo is a viable option either. This feels like a better opportunity than at any time in the last 20 or so years to grab the impetus, but it requires some potentially unpalatable decisions by local politicians to really make this work. Burnham has offered Motherhood and Apple Pie in his quest to make Manchester a hotbed of publicly-controlled world-beating bus quality. He now has to deliver that promise.
The Manchester proposals are interesting for us armchair bus critics. The powers that Metro Mayors have, or can threaten operators with, are actually a useful tool to bring about meaningful improvements. Stagecoach, whilst meeting Burnham in court shortly over the threat to their business, has also been instrumental in creating a package that the Manchester bus operators consortium One Bus has proposed, which looks to bring most or all of the benefits of franchising via a cheaper partnership approach instead. Will the Enhanced Partnership framework – which appears to give local authorities a much greater say in bus services across the country – bear fruit? The West Midlands’ newly re-elected Mayor Andy Street appears to favour this – we haven’t heard the “F” word from his lips, although he has the same powers at his disposal as Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin do. Watch this space.
One more thing to consider. Bus Industry people tell me that recruitment and retention is an increasing issue looming over the horizon. The average bus driver pay rate is now easily being matched and often beaten by other roles, and a day driving in ever-infuriating traffic, coupled with often very unsociable hours makes the role look increasingly unattractive. Will the bus industry ride it’s luck in assuming that many people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic will need a job – any job – in order to pay the bills? Will the apparent promise in the Bus Strategy to provide more evening services and better links require more staff, in an industry that already is struggling in parts to provide it’s mileage as it is? Will operators have to significantly uplift driver’s pay rates to improve recruitment and retention? What does that mean for the viability of existing services, never mind new ones?
Mayor’s transport powers and the new Bus Strategy have opened a Pandora’s Box of issues, which, in truth, probably needed opening anyway. It feels like the time to push on with better buses, but getting it right at every level is crucial.