Forget the HS2 hype, buses are Boris Johnson’s real masterstroke

HS2 risks becoming a financial and political nightmare. Investing in buses, on the other hand, could make a real difference


15 Feb 2020
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Boris Johnson is about to spaff, as he likes to say, somewhere between £56 billion and $106bn on HS2, the high-speed rail network linking Birmingham and the north with London – but forget that, because he’s also finally funding buses.

HS2 is politically problematic: whether you fund it or not, people will be pissed off. It’s a train project the Green Party hates because it tears up the countryside. It’s infrastructure in the north that Northern MPs say is too London-focused. It’s a high-speed line that won’t improve travel times much, because it’s really about capacity. With HS2, all of those points are true, all at once.

But money for buses, that’s perfect. They’re the most used form of public transport in the country, accounting for six in ten public transport journeys. The investment is directed outside of London, avoiding that particular criticism. And the funding required is comparatively small change, with Johnson promising £5bn over five years to boost services outside London and roll out electric models, though that also includes some extra resources to fix a few roads and build a handful of cycle lanes.

If backing buses is such an obvious winner, the only question is why it didn’t happen sooner. “Buses have failed to capture the political imagination in the past,” says transport consultant Steve Chambers. “Rail on the other hand, heavily focused around London and the South East and more likely to be used by politicians, has stolen the show.” But as rail challenges stack up, buses are suddenly a safer bet – both Labour and the Tories featured bus policies in their election manifestos.

That said, buses have long been a Labour priority, but in 2018, when Jeremy Corbyn asked about buses in PMQs, it sparked derision from Tory MPs, who suggested that the Labour leader get a taxi, and Conservative-backing media piling on. “If you look back at earlier policy proposals from Labour, the suggestion that buses should be funded properly was ridiculed,” says Chambers. “As a country we take trains far more seriously, despite more people riding the bus each day.”

Go back further, and Margaret Thatcher is often credited with saying anyone over the age of 25 riding a bus is a failure in life – though there’s no evidence she ever said it, the fact so many people believe it highlights the perception that neither she nor the Conservative party were fans of the most modest, but most used form of transport. The problems faced by the bus network outside of London are largely down to two Conservative policies. The first is Thatcher’s deregulation of buses in 1985, which took power away from local governments and handed it to private companies, except in London. “The market intervention that was supposed to lead to better services and lower fares for passengers, did not [achieve that],” says Nicole Badstuber, a transport researcher at University College London and lecturer at the University of Westminster.

That was the first hit for buses – then came austerity. “Since 2010, local government funding for bus services have halved,” says Badstuber. “Bus services that are unprofitable were particularly hit, as these are subsidised by local government. National government has cut local government budgets harshly in the past few years. As local government has no legal obligation to provide bus services, unlike for example adult social care, bus funding and services were disproportionately hit.”

Data from the Campaign for Better Transport shows bus funding has fallen by £400m a year over the past decade. Ten councils spend nothing – not a single pence – on delivering bus services. The cuts have led to the loss or reduction of more than 3,000 bus routes, in particular in rural areas. A separate report by that group found that such cuts mean a million people are at risk of being cut off from accessing basic services unless they own a car. Cities are also hurt by a lack of buses, with Open Data Institute research finding inadequate public transport held back Birmingham’s productivity, reducing its output to be on par with that of a city half its size.

None of this is new. So why the sudden love for buses? Perhaps we needed a Tory leader who actually seems to like buses – after all, Johnson once claimed to paint them for fun – and while mayor of London he invested in pretty but stupid new Routemasters; perhaps he’s following the lead of predecessor Theresa May, who began tweaking bus regulation before Brexit-related internecine struggles ended her tenure. Reports also suggest Johnson’s top advisor, Dominic Cummings, pushed for bus funding instead of HS2, amid a wider backlash from Tory backbenchers. Last year, a group of Tory MPs spoke out against HS2, saying their constituents would prefer simpler solutions to transport, such as fixing potholes and improving rural bus services.

In funding buses, Johnson wins some support from those outspoken back-benchers, earns political points from rural regions hit by bus cuts, and removes one criticism against HS2, all for a lowly £1bn a year. Plus, he gets a solid photo opportunity much faster than HS2, with the first phase not completed until 2028 at the earliest. “Bus improvements are quick to deliver,” Chambers says. “You’ll see Johnson opening a new bus route with low-emission vehicles long before you’ll see him opening HS2. And in any case he’d need to win another term to do that.”

Buses are good for Johnson, but they’ll be good for the rest of us – if the money is well spent. “To date, there is still little clarity of how and on what the Johnson government’s promised bus funding will be spent on,” says Badstuber. “But these details are important.” Chambers agrees, saying the amount pledged is more than the cuts seen over the past decade. “However, there is no reason to think this money will be used to restore the 3,000-plus routes that have been lost or cut since 2010,” he adds. Instead, a large portion of the funding will be spent buying 4,000 low-emission buses, which Chambers says will be a windfall for bus makers as well as operators facing expensive upgrades to meet environmental and accessibility requirements.

Johnson’s funding only addresses the austerity cuts, but Badstuber believes his upcoming bus strategy should introduce London-style management across the country, essentially reversing Thatcher’s deregulation and privatisation. That would allow local governments to run buses how they see fit, rather than leaving it to the market. “How and through which mechanism the promised bus funding will be spent is important and will define the impact of the additional funding,” Badstuber says. “Devolving funds and powers to city or metropolitan level government bodies would allow them to plan public transport services strategically. It will enable cities and towns to have comprehensive public transport systems with frequent, affordable and reliable services.”

If Johnson is willing to go far enough, his transport legacy need not be the looming financial and political disaster that HS2 threatens to be, nor the over-priced, problematic Routemasters. Instead, it could be rebuilding Britain’s buses, and the communities they serve.

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