For people of my generation, Olive from the TV sitcom On the Buses, along with Reg Varney, was part of growing up. Anne Karen played Olive and her tragic death this week in a house fire in East London has brought an outpouring of tributes. The programme partly resonated because in those days so many people used buses, and worked on the buses – bus conductors were ripe comedy material, some feared, many respected, and some teased. Like so many of those roles, bus conductors are long gone, and buses much changed. Far fewer people use them and it has sometimes seemed that they are in terminal decline. I’ve never agreed with that, and am a regular bus user in Cambridge and in London. I like over-hearing conversations, and the bustle, and I like the convenience – although like most bus-users, I’m often frustrated by the delays. It’s the top complaint, above cost, although that is a real problem. I’m driven to quiet fury sometimes when getting to the stops near the main railway station and finding the next bus to North Cambridge sometimes due to arrive in almost the time it would take to walk it! I meet regularly with the bus company and complain bitterly on behalf of bus-users across the city. To be fair, the main problem is congestion, and that isn’t the fault of bus drivers or operators, they would love to run reliable services and get less grief from passengers. Many readers will remember Andy Campbell who was in charge for many years, and we got on remarkably well, but I was always determined that one day we would ‘take back control of our buses’ – because I think public transport is a service, not a business, and there really is a difference. The comparison that I always drew with London buses always irked Andy – in London, for a much cheaper fare, Londoners enjoy a much more reliable service. Andy Burnham is working on delivering the same for Manchester, and Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is trying to do the same for us here. It needs Government support to make it happen, and that’s where the problem starts. My argument is that buses provide a vital service for many people in and around Cambridge. They help many get to work, access services, and see our loved ones. Buses provide many young people with their first taste of freedom and allow older members of our community to maintain their independence. Even those who do not use buses still benefit from them, as they help tackle climate change and reduce congestion and pollution in our city.
Yet sadly, for much of their time in office, the Conservatives have failed to grasp the importance of buses to communities like Cambridge, resulting in limited funding from central Government.
But recently, after years of neglect, it had started to seem as if the Government were finally recognising the importance of local bus services. With a great deal of fanfare, they announced the ‘Bus Back Better’ strategy to expand services and provided financial support to operators during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, it has now become clear that instead of ‘transformational’ investment in bus services, the Tories are handing communities a wave of bus cuts that will be devastating for many Cambridge residents.
Bus operators are still struggling financially, with revenues yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. To keep buses on the road, operators have relied on a key grant from Government that is due to expire on April 6th. And despite its importance, the Treasury refuses to say if the grant will continue.
Bus operators are required to give six weeks’ notice for route closures. So, this week, given the huge financial uncertainty they face, operators have had no choice but to start announcing route cancellations. Now, with no sign that the Government will announce an extension to the funding anytime soon, even more routes will likely be axed, with industry experts warning that almost a third of routes across the country are at risk.
And it is not as if the Government were not warned about this funding cliff-edge. In December last year, I raised this issue in Parliament, calling on the Transport Secretary to protect critical bus services in Cambridgeshire.
But sadly, it has now become apparent that the funding for their Bus Back Better strategy has actually emerged as half the amount originally promised, significantly short of what is needed. And once the number of people who use public transport falls, it is very difficult to get passenger numbers back up. Reduced bus networks mean services are less attractive or non-existent, which forces operators to raise fares, further reducing passenger numbers, and so the spiral of decline goes on.
If the cuts go ahead, it will mean more congestion and more pollution in and around our city and for millions of other passengers across the country who depend on buses. Olive and Reg were from a different age, and fond though those memories are, we need a transformed approach to buses for the future. They need to be reliable, affordable and electric or hydrogen. They need priority measures so they aren’t stuck in traffic queues, investment to get the right vehicles and a transformation of attitudes so I’m not the only bloke in a suit on the bus. It works in London – we need to make it work in Cambridge and everywhere else too.