The Times, 2 December 2016, Richard Morrison
It was only when I attended the funeral of my colleague Rodney Milnes, who died a year ago this Sunday, that I learnt about his last years. After retirement he had swapped reviewing noisy operas in noisy cities for the polar opposite: idyllic tranquillity in a Gloucestershire village.
That, however, wasn’t the end of his attacks on institutions he felt were failing the public. A lifelong devotee of public transport, he apparently kept a fierce watch on buses serving local villages — castigating operators that disregarded their own timetables and local authorities that let routes disappear.
Perhaps it’s because of Rodney’s trenchant pen that Gloucestershire county council cut its spending on bus services by “only” 12 per cent last year — compared with the 100 per cent cuts inflicted on such places as Stockton-on-Tees, Wrexham and Luton, or the 44 per cent cut across Cumbria. If he had lived to read Buses in Crisis, however — a report published this year by the Campaign for Better Transport — he would have been horrified. So am I.
In the past six years, the report notes, more than 2,000 bus routes across England and Wales have been cut or withdrawn. Most are in rural areas where they haven’t had a railway either since the Beeching massacre of the 1960s, and where a taxi into the nearest town can cost £20.
If you live in that big bubble called London, where (uniquely in England) buses are still regulated (by Transport for London), plentiful, reliable, enhanced by smartphone apps and consequently massively popular, you have no idea of how comprehensively Britain’s bus services have been obliterated in the sticks. And the stupid thing is that cutting those 2,000 routes — which means cutting public transport links to hundreds of villages — has saved local authorities, collectively, only £44 million. That’s £16 million less than the amount of public money that the government has committed to the Garden Bridge project in central London.
Yet the social, cultural and economic damage inflicted on rural heartlands is a thousand times more significant than the debatable benefits of building a tree-walk over the Thames. If rural communities are cut off from towns — especially in the evenings, because even those country bus routes still existing seem to stop after 6pm — they are also cut off from cinemas, theatres, choirs, children’s music centres, bingo, sports facilities and all sorts of other recreations. Not to mention jobs. A car, or even two cars, per family becomes a necessity — but many people can’t afford to buy and run one. And even if they could, is it desirable to make car ownership mandatory when the country is trying to lower carbon emissions, pollution and road congestion?
Then there’s the effect on tourism — a vital economy in rural Britain. Our national parks are now all but inaccessible by public transport. So are hundreds of landmarks, stately homes and castles. So are thousands of miles of glorious coastline. No wonder that National Trust membership is overwhelmingly a middle-class enclave.
It’s not just a question of withdrawn subsidy. Unlike in London — where Thomas Heatherwick’s reborn Routemaster has made bus travel seem almost chic — rural buses have a dated, dusty reputation. Yet marketed properly, and routed through Britain’s most spectacular landscapes, they could become tourist attractions in their own right — like the legendary 100 bus along the vertiginous coastal road between Nice and Monte Carlo, or the spectacular Greyhound route over the Canadian Rockies.
In the past six years more than 2,000 routes have been withdrawn
As it happens, there’s a Bus Services Bill going through parliament now. I’ve read it. (I also watch paint dry.) Frankly, it’s a mishmash of fiddly adjustments that will do little to stem the decline. Indeed, some measures seem to put even more obstacles in the way of those local authorities that want more proactive input into bus networks. I can detect no overarching vision for nurturing the renaissance of the bus. And, crucially, there’s no commitment to restoring subsidy — even though the economic and health benefits of having a mobile rural population would repay such investment many times over.
Nor will the bill tackle a bizarre paradox of present-day transport policy, which is that a scheme introduced with the best intentions — free off-peak bus travel for pensioners — has had disastrous unintended consequences. Pensioners are indeed flocking on to buses (where they can find them), but the compensation offered to companies for carrying non paying passengers doesn’t cover the costs involved. Consequently, operators are dropping routes rather than predominantly carry old people.
On top of funding problems is also a feeling of chaos. Rival bus companies thwart attempts to establish integrated timetables and ticketing. Websites send you on three-hour journeys, involving four changes of bus, to get 30 miles across the shires. Even where quick, useful bus routes do exist in rural England, visitors rarely discover them.
Margaret Thatcher reputedly declared that any man who finds himself on a bus after the age of 26 “can count himself a failure”. There again, she also said that there’s “no such thing as society”. The first statement is surely part-cause of the second. This snobbish belittling of buses from those leading the country is fragmenting rural communities and destroying society.