29 January 2023
The National (p.16)

Ellie Harrison’s appearance at The Platform in Easterhouse has not been by accident, but by design. And that design is not the end of an odyssey, but part of a campaign designed to get us all moving back into publicly owned transport. Her travels have linked three major UK cities – Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool – on purpose.

Bus Regulation: The Musical (Strathclyde), performed in the venue tucked away in the outskirts of Greater Glasgow, makes a compelling case for the reverse of 1980s legislation which saw bus companies, routes and even policy hawked off to private bidders – in Glasgow’s case, First Bus. Her fervent hope since 2014, she reveals, is to: “Kick First out of Glasgow. That was on my to-do list. It’s taken a while.”

I’ve seen the list and heard her arguments and would not bet against her making it happen. It also led to Harrison conducting a year-long experiment when she did not go out of the city of Glasgow and only use her bike for an entire year – and about which she wrote her book – The Glasgow Effect.

What her book proved was that “there are clear relationship between good public transport and good population heath”.

It’s one of those January afternoons, better spent inside than out as we meet in her studio in the East End of Glasgow to discuss the background behind her passion for buses. As it turns out, this is not a simple passion but has a heady mix of campaigning and agitprop as you might expect from someone sporting a Bring Back British Rail top and who promotes campaigns like Get Glasgow Moving.

The show emerges from a variety of influences which have their beginnings in 2016 when she was commissioned to produce a piece of artwork by Manchester Art Gallery to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

As she explains, “They were doing a thing about art and protest, so I was invited and I knew about this campaign, Better Buses for Greater Manchester. I thought wouldn’t it be great if I could use this opportunity to create a platform for this campaign? It wasn’t just putting on the musical, I also put the campaign group in touch with the gallery, and they held a big public meeting in the gallery as well.

“So, there were other ways of using the gallery to sort of help the campaign. I can’t remember exactly how the idea of the musical came to me, but it was based on Starlight Express.”

And that is how you get from bus regulation to roller skating. She has lovingly kept her treasured 1980’s Starlight Express programme and explains how her musical also has 80’s roots: “The eighties was such a crucial period for bus policy because that was when the buses were deregulated. And the legacy of that looms over us, now with the fact that it is all privatised.”

But it was never always thus, and the only female transport secretary of the 20th century, Barbara Castle, certainly knew how to get things done. She was the one – when she had the chance – who legislated to nationalise them.

“The 1968 act – not only did it set up the National Bus Company which only applied in England, and Wales but it basically brought all of the rural bus companies back into public ownership. The act was ’68. That happened on January 1, 1969! All of those bus companies brought into public ownership,” Harrison adds.

In the 21st century, that speed of change has not been equalled. When the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, eventually convinced by the likes of Better Buses for Greater Manchester, announced that he would re-regulate the bus companies in the area, few could have guessed how long it was likely to take.

Harrison explains: “It was finally announced in March 2021 that he was going to do it, but it is a fairly long process to roll it out so it’s not going to be finished until 2025 because it is basically undoing all the damage caused by deregulation.”

Liverpool (which is smaller) is due to go out for public consultation – Harrison hopes to be able to repeat the Merseyside version to support their cause.

Following Castle’s lead, the impact that women have on the campaigns is not just down to Castle being the Manchester narrator but then replacing her neatly with Nellie the Clippie for Glasgow and Betty the Passenger in Liverpool. The function of the narrators is to oversee the chaos of deregulation which is physically apparent as local roller derby skaters perform the role of the buses.

“I had done a few projects with roller derby skaters and because I did roller derby myself in 2012, I wasn’t daunted by contacting them and asking them to collaborate on this,” she says.

“As it has gone to each of the cities it has always been local people skating in it. Having an all-female cast is something very important to me and is one of the most subversive elements”.

The Platform is an ideal venue for the musical as it is a remote part of the city needing decent public transport, rather than a city centre venue where it had buses literally passing the front door. Buses are vital parts of isolated communities.

She says: “Rail users are generally wealthier people travelling longer distances and because they are wealthier they have got louder voices, they kick up more of a fuss, if the fares go up etc.

“Whereas bus users, although three-quarters of all journeys in public transport are made by bus, are generally people on low incomes, women, old people, young people, disabled people – marginalised groups that rely on buses who don’t have that same voice to be able to say this is awful, we’re being fleeced, and by the way, my bus route that I relied on to get wherever I needed to go doesn’t exist anymore.”

Harrison’s hope is that this is an opportunity to do something about The Glasgow Effect, which “is a comparison between Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool, where Glasgow has 30% higher mortality than these two cities”.

She continues: “They (Manchester and Liverpool) have very similar levels of poverty and deprivation to Glasgow, so they are the best comparators. That’s crucial to why I picked these three cities, but it just so happens that these two cities (Manchester and Liverpool) are leading the way on re-regulating buses.”

Of those that packed out the Platform, she hopes that there are policymakers able to expand the influence to Get Glasgow Moving.

Donald Stewart