Calls for publicly-owned buses as Kirkstall councillor calls Leeds services ‘pathetic’

13 January 2020

An influential panel of councillors heard renewed calls for a publicly run bus service in Leeds, with one calling the city’s bus system “pathetically awful”, writes Richard Beecham.

It was claimed passengers had been ‘failed’ by three decades of buses being run by private businesses, with some suggesting services could better adapt to environmental and passenger needs if they were once again run by local authorities.

It follows 11 recommendations which were made by the Leeds climate jury – a group made up of 25 members of the public, which was tasked last year with producing a report on how Leeds can meet its targets to become carbon neutral by 2030.

The recommendations, which included bringing bus services back into public ownership, went before a meeting of Leeds City Council’s climate emergency advisory committee.

Committee member Neil Buckley (cons, Alwoodley) asked the meeting: 

“What makes public ownership a guarantee of a greener bus service? Why didn’t the panel say ‘we would like very a green, eco-friendly bus service’? And why would this be a recommendation on a panel that is supposedly non-political?”

john illingworth kirkstall labour
Cllr John Illingworth

He was met with a robust response by fellow panel member Coun John Illingworth Lab, Kirkstall), who said:

“I go London fairly often to see the kids – they are in well-paid jobs, but they routinely, every day, go on the bus – because that’s what you do in London.

“It’s so much better, and I look at our pathetically awful bus system in Leeds. It is not about ownership, it is about control. Transport for London sets the routes and the service frequency.

“The other companies tend to supply that service, but they are firmly under the thumb and do what Transport for London tells them.

“It is 200 per cent better than it is in Leeds.”

The introduction of the Transport Act in 1986 saw bus services become privatised, meaning they could no longer be owned and run by local authorities like Leeds City Council.

Coun Illingworth continued:

“You need to accept that the private ownership model has been extensively field tested since 1986 to the present day, and it has failed – failed, failed, failed – it doesn’t work.”

The debate took place as both First and Arriva’s bus services in West Yorkshire are up for sale, with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) is currently investigating how realistically it could take over and run some services itself.

Committee chair Coun Neil Walshaw (Lab, Headingley) said:

“I think you can’t really dismiss that as just politics – the bus act was implemented in 1986, fewer pieces of public policy have been given a fairer crack of the whip, and few things have failed quite so comprehensively as a deregulated privatised bus network. 

“It doesn’t work, and the people of Leeds recognise that.”  

david blackburn farnley and wortley
Cllr David Blackburn

Coun David Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) added:

“Having public transport in public ownership is not going to be perfect, but there is much more chance of them being responsive to public will than a private company that is run for profit.

“Start lobbying your MPs about giving us the funding to help us do our job – we can make a major difference.”

The Leeds Climate Change Jury was set up following Leeds City Council’s climate emergency declaration last year, and saw 25 members of the public meet to discuss what Leeds needed to do to help tackle climate change, while listening to academic experts in the field.

The group sent a report containing 11 recommendations back to Leeds City Council, among which were the introduction of an Oyster card-style universal public transport payment system, the retro-fitting of houses to be energy efficient and investment funds to encourage green industry.

The climate emergency committee noted the report.

Paul Matthews, Managing Director of First West Yorkshire, said: 

“First West Yorkshire, Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority have entered a four-year deal in Leeds, with the shared objective of doubling passenger numbers by 2030 and securing compliance with air quality limits. First is investing £71m in 284 buses; the local authorities are investing in five bus corridors, city centre improvements and four new or extended Park & Rides.

“Infrastructure works to deliver these improvements and environmental change are largely the cause of current difficulties for all transport in Leeds, but will bring huge benefits in future.

“We are convinced that the quickest, cheapest and best way to improve bus services is through positive and proactive partnerships. Local authorities and bus operators working together can positively impact congestion and air quality, provide more services, deliver patronage growth and better support local economies.

“Franchising risks being a serious distraction, wasting time and effort which would be better spent improving services for passengers and tackling the fundamental problems of congestion, air quality and reliability.

“Comparisons with London, which is now seeing significant passenger decline and network cuts, are unhelpful given the public subsidy which goes from local people to fund the regulated network in the capital.”

Arriva has been contacted for a comment.

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