Labour will seek to overhaul failing bus services, giving local areas in England devolved powers to reinstate cancelled routes and set affordable fares.
The changes are expected to come within months of a Labour government as part of a “take back control bill” and would mark the biggest change in the sector in 40 years, as well as giving authorities powers to start their own publicly owned bus services.
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said the reforms would be the most consequential in a generation for public transport relied on by millions, saying Labour would change a system that is “fundamentally broken”.
“It is a total quiet crisis that’s happening in every community,” she said as she met frustrated passengers in Newcastle. “And it has really serious effects on people’s lives, but it also has really serious effects on the economy, and it’s just not getting the attention it deserves.”
The changes would be a key plank of the party’s local election strategy for the May polls, which will focus on the cost of living and the decline of public services in an effort to win back control of some councils in the north of England.
Haigh said that although the national conversation often focused on trains, which Labour has promised to nationalise, poor performance of bus services often blighted more lives.
Twice as many people use buses as those who catch trains, with 2.91bn bus passenger journeys in 2022. And many do not have alternative options – 80% of people nationally who rely on buses have no other choice.
Local people and councillors speaking to Haigh in Kingston Park, despite living just a few miles from Newcastle city centre, told of job changes because of intolerable commutes, social isolation, missed medical appointments because of vanishing buses, and children left to wait at bus stops in the dark.
One previously reliable service had undergone three changes in recent years, and other alterations included a service that now includes a long walk up a steep hill to the nearest stop, making it impossible to reach for elderly people.
A commuter route, the only public transport from a new estate, had been changed to take at least 25 minutes longer to reach the city centre. One person said a journey of five miles now routinely took more than an hour and a half because buses did not appear. “The message is, get a car,” he said.
Different bus companies on routes in Newcastle use different apps, without joined-up timetables and will not accept each others’ day passes. The local MP Catherine McKinnell said the unreliability of services was terrible for local schoolchildren, who are not profitable commuters so are often left on routes with long delays, waiting in the dark.
Haigh said she often encountered disbelief from angry passengers that there was almost nothing politicians or councils could do to maintain or improve services from private bus companies, short of public admonishment.
“We’re the only country in the developed world which hands operators power over routes, fares and services with no say for communities,” she said.
Labour would offer all local areas the chance to franchise bus services, in a similar way to Transport for London, which would give them the power to set routes and fares and remove poor providers, Haigh said.
“This is a radical reform of the way transport is going to work in this country, because it hands power and control back to those communities in a direct attempt to put to reverse that feeling of decline,” she added.
“This is the total failure of privatisation. The big idea behind deregulation that it would lead to huge competition and innovation. And it’s had the opposite effect. We’ve seen bus passenger numbers steadily decline since deregulation.”
Greater Manchester, under its mayor, Andy Burnham, is the only other authority in England to have recently been given powers over bus franchising – but the introduction has been fraught with legal challenges and bureaucratic hurdles.
Labour’s plans are expected to increase costs, including on central government, but Haigh says it is “a much more efficient and less wasteful” system.
She said many local authorities wanted powers to run their own operations, similar to legacy public bus companies in cities such as Nottingham and Edinburgh. Labour would lift a ban on municipal bus ownership.
“It means that profit isn’t being sucked out of the system to private operators. It’s being reinvested into less profitable routes. So if that’s what’s right for local communities, then of course we want to see it,” Haigh said.
A former Unite shop steward who comes from a family of trade union officials, Haigh is one of the shadow cabinet’s last remaining champions of public ownership – and argued the case forcefully for the full nationalisation of rail that was announced at party conference.
For the time being, there is set to be no further movement on nationalisation of other key industries including mail, water or energy, which the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, underlined in a speech earlier this week.