30 Years Anniversary of UK Bus Deregulation and Privatisation

Sheffield Trade Union Council marks the 30th anniversary of the implementation of the Tories 1985 Transport Act on “D-Day” 26th October 1986 not with celebration but with anger – and a renewed call to bring our bus and tram services back under Local Government municipal ownership where they belong.

This 30 year-long experiment with neo-liberal ideology has all but destroyed our once publicly owned integrated network of bus and tram services. Today we are left with a network less than half the size with sky-high fares, lower frequencies and with most evening, Sunday and non-core services stripped out. Passenger numbers have plummeted and consequently traffic congestion has increased. Notwithstanding this, the private bus companies receive up to 40% of their income from the taxpayer yet are subject to no accountability or control. All the infrastructure including bus stops, bus stations, bus information services; bus lanes and bus priority measures; and the tram permanent way and electricity power supply are all provided by the public purse. This a bad deal for the public and stands as further proof of the failures of privatisation and deregulation to deliver the promises made by the Tory Government in the 1985 Transport Act.

Unregulated competition led to chaotic and destructive competition on our city streets as too many companies sought to undercut each other in battles for control of potentially lucrative core bus corridors. From 1986 to 1996 profitability was squeezed and bus workers wages and conditions declined in real terms more than any other category of worker in the UK. This included attacks on pensions, sick pay, holiday pay entitlements and longer spells of work with fewer breaks.

Sheffield TUC recalls the success of the SYPTE municipally owned services which operated across South Yorkshire until D-Day 30 years ago. We had a stable network of interconnecting high frequency services and extremely low fares stimulating year on year growth of passengers using the network from 1981 to 1986. On some core routes, buses ran as frequently as every 2 minutes in the peak encouraging more and more people to leave their car at home for journeys to and from work. The network included less well-used routes in order to provide a comprehensive service penetrating nearly every community including regular inner and outer circle routes. An all-night service catered for late night revellers and shift workers alike. Elderly people lived longer and healthier lives because their mobility was properly catered for. New greener housing estates on the edge of the city centre could be served by frequent buses on very low fares giving people access to jobs and shopping all over the city.

Municipal ownership of our local public transport is not just a pipe-dream or a throwback to yesteryear. In France more than a dozen municipalities have reversed the privatisation of their public transport networks just in the last 5 years as it became clear that this would be a cheaper option for the local taxpayer and make the network more accountable. Here in the UK the few remaining municipal bus companies that have survived e.g. Lothian Regional Transport in Edinburgh provide a model of how bus services should be run i.e. lower fares, more modern fleet, reliable services and profits either ploughed back into the network or back to the Local Authorities.

This Sheffield TUC calls for

  • Scrapping the Tories’ highly flawed 2016 Bus Services Bill which will give devolved Local Government some control back over their local bus networks but strips out protection for bus workers provided in Labour’s 2008 Local Transport Act and in an act of ideological dogma bans Local Governments bringing buses back into municipal ownership.
  • Calls on our MPs to back Sheffield TUC’s call to bring our buses and trams back into municipal ownership
  • Support UNITE, We Own It and Transport for a Better Life in their campaign to achieve a World Class Bus System for Britain with a return to municipal ownership.