Taking buses back under public control

The UK is unique in Europe in having a deregulated system for its buses: with over two-thirds of market turnover controlled by just five private companies: First, Stagecoach, Arriva, National Express and Go-Ahead. Bus reform in the mid-1980s was supposed to lead to an improvement in services. But it had the opposite effect: virtually everywhere outside London, fares rose and services worsened.

In a deregulated system, decisions about fares, routes and timetables are made mostly by private companies based around profitability, rather than public interest criteria. There’s no ‘guiding mind’ to oversee the planning and management of an affordable and integrated public transport network that can cover a whole urban region. A simple ticketing system (like the Oystercard) that can be used on different private bus routes is hard to introduce under current law.

In fact, none of the examples cited on this page could have happened under the bus privatisation model: some local authority regulatory oversight (either ownership, franchising or statutory partnership) appears to be essential to create an affordable, easy to use and green public transport system.

Portsmouth in particular has suffered from the privatisation of its bus services, as over 50% of the residents in some of the poorest wards don’t own a vehicle. The consequences of high fares, congestion and unreliable service have been that only 12% of residents commute by bus whilst the 41 000 people who travel into Portsmouth for work every day do so mostly by car, even though half live in nearby Havant and Fareham. An excellent area-wide public transport system would help tackle all these issues: allowing those on low incomes to travel around the city easily and cheaply, and commuters to switch to cleaner and quicker ways of getting to work.


Reading is a similar size town to Portsmouth but kept their bus services publicly owned; this meant they didn’t have to pay any dividends so were able reinvest a greater percentage of their profits (£3 million per year) back into their buses.

This has made a substantial difference to the quality of the town’s bus network, and is one reason why it has high levels of bus use: double the number of passenger trips that we do. It has also seen passenger journeys increase by 37% since 2009, whilst Portsmouth has risen by less than 5% in the same time period.

Please join our campaigns to make it easier for local authorities to take bus services back under public control and create an integrated public transport system.

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