1 February 2024
Scottish Left Review (Issue 138 p.8-9)

England can teach our public bodies lessons about how to finally deliver fully-integrated transport networks, writes Ellie Harrison.

Across the North of England a quiet revolution is underway – one which will help to tackle poverty, inequality and social isolation, whilst also addressing the urgent need to reduce emissions from transport (the most polluting sector of the UK’s economy) and reinvigorating local economies.

Regional bus networks, which have been deregulated and privatised since the 1980s, are slowly but surely being brought back into public control. Transport authorities will once again be able to plan and coordinate services to meet communities’ needs and to integrate seamlessly with other transport modes.

Greater Manchester is leading the charge. They committed to re-regulating their bus network in March 2021 after a lengthy process of planning, audit and public consultation (begun in 2017). The first phase of their new ‘Bee Network’ integrated public transport system launched in Bolton in September 2023. By 5 January 2025 every bus across the ten local authorities in the region will be publicly-controlled by their transport authority, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), and painted yellow in matching ‘Bee Network’ livery. There will be simple, affordable integrated ticketing across bus, tram, rail and bike hire. This is something which is, of course, the norm in most other European city regions (and in London), which have not been forced to endure the crazed free-market experiment of bus deregulation imposed by Thatcher’s government in 1986.

Liverpool City Region will be next, with its Mayor Steve Rotheram announcing on 6 October 2023 that the Region would proceed with re-regulating buses across the six local authorities in the Merseytravel area. The first publicly-controlled buses should be rolling through the streets of St Helens in 2026. West Yorkshire Combined Authority is hot on their heels with a decision due on 12 March this year, and South Yorkshire is then likely to follow. This means, within the next five years, the 8.5 million people living in this contiguous area across the North of England will have access to properly regulated buses run in the public interest (alongside the 8.8 million in London who always have). Huge patronage growth is expected, with sustainable and affordable public transport finally available to all.

It is within this context that our new Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign was launched on 29 September 2023. Inspired by the grassroots Better Buses campaigns which have paved the way for this progressive transformation in England, the Strathclyde campaign aims to bring together people in the region’s twelve local authorities to put pressure on our transport authority – Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) – to use the new powers available in Scotland’s Transport Act 2019. And there could not be a more crucial time. SPT is currently developing the new Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy which will set the direction of bus policy for the next 15 years. They are due to announce a decision on which powers they intend to pursue on 15 March this year.

Despite being several years behind its English counterparts (largely the result of a four year delay in the Scottish Government enacting the powers in the Transport Act 2019), SPT now has the opportunity to do something far more radical, which is of course what we are demanding.

As a result of Get Glasgow Moving’s persistent campaign at the Scottish Parliament in 2018-2019, the Transport Act was amended to enable transport authorities in Scotland to set-up new publicly-owned bus operators for the first time since 1986. This is still illegal in England under their Bus Services Act 2017 (although UK Labour has pledged to lift the ban if elected later this year). It means that SPT can not only re-regulate the region’s bus network to plan and coordinate services as part of one consistent public transport brand – it can also bring more-and-more of it into public ownership as well.

Establishing a new ‘Strathclyde Buses’ (co-owned by the twelve local authorities in the region through SPT) which can run services within a regulated network will, in the longer-term, offer a much simpler and more cost-effective way of delivering fully integrated public transport. This is why the public ownership of transport operations is, again, the norm in most other parts of the world.

So this really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the 2.2 million people living in Strathclyde (home to Scotland’s largest number of bus users). If SPT do as we ask and seize the new powers, they can begin to reverse the decades of damage done by deregulation, which have seen bus fares soaring well above inflation and millions of miles of routes cut. If our campaign is successful, we hope it will set a precedent for other Scottish regions to follow.

Everyone in Scotland deserves access to a publicly-owned, affordable, reliable and accountable bus service, like those provided by Edinburgh’s Lothian Buses, the only bus operator in Scotland to survive the process of privatisation which began in 1986. And it’s only by making this a reality that we stand any chance of meeting pressing climate targets, not least the Scottish Government’s target of reducing car miles by 20% by 2030. We need to see new Better Buses campaigns up and running in Tayside and Grampian and elsewhere to put pressure on their respective transport authorities (TACTRAN and NESTRANS) to follow SPT’s lead.1 And we need the Scottish Government to put its money where its mouth is: to look and learn from the quiet revolution unfolding down south, and to properly empower and fund these public bodies so they can deliver the world-class, fully-integrated public transport networks that we urgently need.

Ellie Harrison


1 My previous article for the SLR sets out exactly what TACTRAN and NESTRANS must do.