One of Maggie Thatcher’s more celebrated sayings was – allegedly that ‘if a man still uses buses after he’s 30 then he is a failure.’ This, I think, summed up her disdain for
most ordinary people and also her total lack of interest in, and support for, public transport. Famously she rarely used the railways, and almost certainly she did not bother to catch the bus. The trouble is that this disdain for the bus is one that has been shared by most leading politicians for many years now, and this may be one reason why bus services are so uniformly dire across the country. In this area, one issue that regularly crops up on an almost daily basis in my constituency postbag is the quality of service provided in places like Guisborough and East Cleveland. Readers may recall in the last issue of Coastal View that I picked up on Arriva’s stated desire to get shot of the 48 bus between Saltburn and Lingdale, despite the fact that this service is the only one that directly serves the Hillside Medical Centre in Skelton, East Cleveland’s biggest GP surgery. That issue, unfortunately, is just the tip of the iceberg. Complaints about late running buses, services cut off, the poor state of some of the older buses and the unresponsiveness of bus company managers are staple subjects. So why are bus services so bad ? I need to say that this is a national problem, not just one confined to this area, and in that sense, the roots of the problem go back over 20 years. That was when the then Thatcher government instituted what they called the ‘deregulation’ of local buses in the UK (with the exception of London). Up to then local buses were regulated by a combination of the local council, the Traffic Commissioners and the Transport Ministry. Buses were run by either local councils, 10 big regional bus operators under the flag of the nationalised National Bus Company or one of a large number of small private operators. Fares, frequencies and routes were subject to control and oversight for the good of the travelling public and as a result, the pattern of service was deeply embedded into a relatively unchanging but highly dependable pattern of routes and times. Many people look fondly back to those times – to the days, locally, when services were run by a combination of ‘the United’ (the local National Bus Company) and Cleveland Transit – and contrast that to today, where services seem to come and go with frightening frequency, and where reliability has been sacrificed on the alter of simple untrammelled profit seeking.
Deregulation brought into being a new world which saw the majority of the country faced with a situation where anyone wanting to set up a bus company could do so, could set the route pattern, determine the timings and the frequency. They did not have to adhere to the carefully laid down staff conditions that had been patiently built up over many years by the National Bus Company and the municipal bus operators with their staff and their Trade Unions, leading to drivers and depot staff effectively facing wage cuts and a worsened working environment. As the promoters of de-regulation intended, this rapidly led to the death of the vast majority of local council-owned bus services. In this part of the country, this meant that both Cleveland Transit, Hartlepool Transport and Darlington Transport being closed and sold off to private interests. This changing pattern of ownership was also reflected in the break up of the National Bus Company, with, locally, the old United being, firstly, sold off to Sir Tom Cowie’s bus and car company and then to Arriva, who now have an effective near monopoly of all services running to the south and east of Middlesbrough and in East Cleveland.
Arriva is now one of the so-called ‘big five’ bus companies – vast multinational companies dominating the bus industry in the UK, with overseas interests and with afoothold in privatised railway operation. Their names are everywhere you travel- the First Group, the Go-Ahead Group and Stagecoach – the mega-bus and rail business that became the ultimate owners of Cleveland Transit, and who dominate bus travel in much of Stockton and Hartlepool. Locally we have seen a marked deterioration in the quality of local bus services over recent years as Arriva have begun to exploit their local trength. They have made arbitrary and wide ranging changes, and have altered routes and timings on a regular basis. We have seen local communities like Liverton Mines and skinningrove almost left off the transport map, only to be reprieved by pleas from local residents and councillors, and the axing of entire through services such as the old 71 route that directly linked two of the area’s most important towns – Saltburn and Guisborough.
True, Arriva have recently invested in new buses. But many of the older buses still linger on, and some of these are very hard for disabled passengers or for mums with shopping or baby buggies to get on and off. Now, a new set of changes seem to be imminent. I have already mentioned the threat to axe the 48 route, but I fear others may soon be facing the same threats as a combination of higher fuel prices and falling passenger use kick in. I accept the first is outwith the control of Arriva, but the second, I believe, is down to the public perception of the unreliability of their services, a perception built up by the public’s own direct daily or weekly travelling experience. Many people still feel that a local council can impose some semblance of order into this mess, but in truth their powers are limited. They can make representations and offer to form partnerships with the operators. They can, if they have the funds, subsidise some services which private operators will not touch if they see them as unprofitable, and indeed many local Sunday and evening services (like the 789 and 748 East Cleveland services) are supported by Redcar and Cleveland Council. But this support can only be as large as the budget made available to the council, and this, in the present climate of austerity and cuts, is limited. So is there an answer to this spiral of decline and shabby service? I think there is, but it has to be a change that comes from the top. That is, there has to be a fundamental rethink by central government over how local bus services are run and structured. That means simply the re-regulation of bus services. And a model for this does exist and can be drawn on for inspiration. In London and in some of the bigger cities like Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham, a degree of regulation still exist. These powers, the powers of a ‘Passenger Transport Authority’ can provide for the fixing of routes and fares and for a broad oversight of the frequency and pattern of simple things like integrated timetables. In addition they can order a greater integration of different types of passenger transport – which would mean the spectacle of someone getting off the train at Saltburn, only to see their connecting bus moving off before they can get to the bus stop, becoming a part of the past. Ideally, and with these basic powers increased, they could look to more modern modes of transport being provided for the coming century. It is telling that whilst big cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Croydon in London are running safe, quiet, efficient
and regular mass transit tram systems, Teesside is still reduced to begging for whatever crumbs there might be on the Department for Transport’s table for the projected ‘metro’ cheme. This future, a future seeing modern buses running together with new trams and radically improved rail services, could be the future in Teesside and East Cleveland – if the will and imagination is there. Just imagine, for instance a new Metro tram service coming back to Guisborough, so that rapid links to Middlesbrough and new employment hotspots like Teesdale can be a mere half hour away and with no hassle of crowded roads and traffic jams. Just imagine buses responsive to demand, operating in the smallest East Cleveland communities and tied to phone or e-mail booking. Technically, all this is possible if the will is there to set it running. We will not get this will from the government now in power, but it is something that the future Labour Government could easily bring about. And more recently, I am pleased to say, my views have been backed up by the Competition Commission, who, after looking at ways to open up more bus markets across the country concluded that too many operators face little or no competition in local areas. In a summary of the CC’s provisional findings report on the local bus market in the UK they said that the great majority of routes in the UK ‘faced little or no competition’, meaning that ‘passengers dependent on bus services in those areas can expect less frequent services and in some cases higher fares than where there is more competition. This is something I pledge I will continue to fight for on your behalf. We cannot afford to miss the bus yet again. Tom Blenkinsop M.P.
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Write: Tom Blenkinsop MP,
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