10 November 2018
We Own It conference, London
Ellie Harrison, artist and founder of @bringbackBR: I was a pissed off passenger struggling to get around on the trains. A few years ago I set up Bring Back British Rail, and – along with We Own It – we have shifted the discourse on public ownership of transport. pic.twitter.com/JBkQ6YjmHP
— We Own It (@We_OwnIt) November 10, 2018
Hi everyone, thanks to We Own It for inviting me here today. I’m really excited to be on this panel brainstorming the future of publicly-owned public transport with two of my public transport heroes Lynn and Ian. They are the authors of: Rebuilding Rail, from 2012, which shows why we need to re-nationalise our railways, and how to do it. And Building a World-Class Bus Service for Britain, from 2016, which demonstrates the extent to which deregulation of our buses in 1980s has failed: the huge number of routes cut in the last 30 years, and fare hikes hitting the poorest and most marginalised people in the country.
I’m not an expert like Lynn & Ian and I’m very excited to hear what they have to say! I’m actually trained as an artist and I teach part-time at the Art College in Dundee, which is how I subsidise all my activism… I got into public transport campaigning almost a decade ago now, from an environmental perspective. Concerns about climate change and the urgent need to cut our carbon emissions.
We need to be delivering a world-class, affordable and efficient public transport network in order to encourage people to make more sustainable journeys – by train or by bus – instead of by car or short-haul flights. The UK has highest number of domestic flights in Europe and it’s no coincidence that it also has the most expensive train fares.
I could see from my own perspective as a ‘pissed-off passenger’ trying to get around, that privatisation was not delivering what we need. Yet at the same time, there was no popular movement (beyond the inward looking trade union campaigns) demanding radical changes to the status quo. So in 2009, I set-up the Bring Back British Rail campaign to begin to popularise the idea of re-nationalising our railways – of re-unifying track and train under one operator run for people not profit.
We were joined by the union’s new outward facing Action for Rail campaign in 2012, and by We Own It in 2013. And together we have made huge progress in forcing public ownership onto the mainstream political agenda – one reason why we’re here today.
I have been living in Glasgow for over a decade. And in the last few years I have been spending a lot more time campaigning locally. In 2016, I helped to set-up the Get Glasgow Moving campaign demanding a world-class, fully-integrated & accessible, publicly-owned & accountable, public transport network for everyone in our city.
It’s crunch time at the moment in Scotland as we have the most unimaginative Transport Bill going through our Parliament, which we’re lobbying hard to amend. We submitted our petition signed by 10,184 people from Glasgow, calling for the public-ownership of our buses on 3 October 2018.
So now I better address the question: ‘How do we make public ownership of public transport so wildly successful that even a future Tory government cannot dismantle it?’ I think the most important thing is to ensure that everyone in Britain feels that it is their public transport network: that they own it and that it provides for their needs.
The most common argument that car drivers make, is that they don’t use the railways or the buses so why should they have to pay for them through taxes? This attitude of course overlooks the social and environmental goods that public transport provides, namely reducing air pollution and the consumption of fossil fuels.
But we could change the way people felt about public transport if every single British citizen was awarded an equal share in the a new public new operator, let’s call it ‘British Rail’ and was updated on developments and invited to attend meetings to determine its future.
Of course if we really wanted everyone to feel as though the new ‘British Rail’ was theirs, then we would need to undo the damage done by Beeching in the 1960s, so that no matter where you lived in the country you can access the network easily, within a short, perfectly timetabled, bus journey.
This image shows Glasgow’s world-leading public transport network in the 1940s. It is quite extreme the damage that was done to Glasgow in the decades that followed – 100 miles of tram network ripped up and this canal is now a massive six-lane motorway, but it is typical of happened to all our big cities in the post-war period, much of which must now be rebuilt.
So I want to I want to finish up with some questions, which I hope my ‘experts’ here will help me answer:
1. How do our ‘regional’ and ‘national’ public transport networks intersect?
In terms of ownership and governance, do we all have a share in both? ‘National’ of course means something very different in Scotland. My feeling is that when the big cities were run as all-powerful ‘Corporations’, that they made much better decisions in the interests of their people? But maybe when they did make bad decisions there was no bigger ‘guiding mind’ there to stop them.
2. How far is it actually sustainable for us to travel?
If you want to discourage long-distance travel, then of course you need much better regulation and taxation of cars and aeroplanes, so that rail is still the more affordable option. I feel it is essential that all transport costs, whatever the mode, must accurately reflect the damage done to the environment as a result. I think the only way to deal with this and deliver meaningful social inclusion, is to make all regional public transport free. A policy, which is of course much easier to deliver under public ownership.
And finally, 3. How is it funded?
How do we stop those holding the purse strings withdrawing funds? Do we need separate ring-fenced taxes distributed at source to fund each of our universal basic services? So that governments can’t get their mitts on our money and use it for something else.