While we have heard a great deal about the increasing cost of train journeys recently, the cuts to bus services have won less attention. Rail services are important for connecting Stockton and Teesside to the rest of the country, but much of the life of our area is reliant on buses.
Stockton South is often considered by those who don’t really know it to be the well-off part of Teesside, where public transport doesn’t matter because everyone has a car, or even more than one. However the statistics do not bear this out. Our local authority still has 5,500 people currently economically inactive who are looking for work. The rate of young people dependent on JSA is twice the national average. With the 17-20 age bracket taking more bus journeys than any other age group, these people rely on public transport to find work, and will rely on it to get to work.
Bus travel therefore needs to be both regular and, crucially, affordable. Bus fares have gone up faster than inflation every year for the last three years, while wages have frozen or fallen. For someone on minimum wage, their first 40 minutes in work each morning is spent simply paying for the journey that got them there. For an apprentice it’s the first hour and a half.
Further, Stockton has a greater proportion of disabled people than the national average, many of whom will have difficulties preventing them from driving. Already under pressure because of government changes to disability benefits, rising fares and diminishing services risk making many disabled people captives in their own homes.
This fear of isolation has also come from many older people I speak to. Buses, or the lack of them, is one of the top issues on the doorstep as I go out across the constituency. Residents in the Village in Thornaby, across Ingleby Barwick, in Hartburn, up Worsall Road in Yarm, and in the Durham Lane area of Eaglescliffe for instance talk to me about a lack of decent services. I spoke to a woman in Ingleby this week who is in despair and talking about moving house because she feels so isolated since the service she relies on was altered.
While the Coalition has tried to paint itself as on the side of pensioners, the cuts to services mean there are now far fewer journeys where concessionary fares or free bus passes can be used. Added all up across England this amounts to 60 million miles in journeys no longer supported since 2010. A free bus pass is useless if there are no buses.
This Tory-led government has overseen devastating cuts to our bus services, largely by forcing through cuts to local authorities.Stockton has been compelled to follow Darlington and Hartlepool in removing all subsidies to bus services. The 2014-15 financial settlement forced a further £9 million of cuts upon our local authority. The council no longer has the money to keep routes going as public services where the bus companies themselves feel there is not enough profit to be made.
The effect across Teesside is such that our region has four of the five local authorities which have seen the biggest reduction in use, at a time when public transport use is booming in London and the South East. There are two explanations. Either our region has suddenly experienced a surge in car ownership during the economic downturn, or people are being systematically priced off an ever-shrinking network. I know which one I think is more likely.
Since 1986 when Maggie Thatcher deregulated buses we have seen things get steadily worse. Now buses can be considered as public transport only in as much as we use them together, in public. All concept of public service has been lost. Stagecoach buses are run for the benefit of the company owner Brian Souter. Arriva is a subsidiary of Germany’s state-owned Deutsche Bahn, and its profits are used to keep fares low in that country. These companies can only be enticed to run on less popular routes if local councils stump up the cash to subsidise them. The only city to have avoided these problems is London whose buses were never deregulated, where usage has surged. It tells us something that the transport system of the powerful in the capital is not left to the market.
This callous attitude by the government to communities reliant upon good public services runs through everything they have done over the last four years in government. From inflicting the Bedroom Tax on vulnerable tenants in social housing, to their attacks on legal aid and access to justice, to real terms cuts to our NHS. The spending power of the most deprived council is being cut this year by seven times as much as the richest councils and, unsurprisingly, Labour councils are facing deeper cuts under this government than Conservative or Liberal Democrat ones. The Coalition’s policies look after what they see as their people, and that doesn’t include the people of Teesside.
I want to be a responsive candidate – and MP – who listens to residents and takes action. So I am putting buses high on my list of priorities for our area. I have already had some exploratory talks with other bus campaigners across the country and can today confirm that I will be campaigning for people on Teesside to enjoy the same benefits as London using the same rules. We will be putting together a proposal in the coming months, and I invite all those that care about our area to get involved.
While our local Labour councillors have done their best, to really improve the lives of the people of Stockton we must have a Labour government in Westminster with a mandate to devolve real power to our region, instead of just passing on cuts to services. If we want a transport network that can get people to work, support local businesses, and bring isolated people back into our community, then we need to tell the Tories, “on yer bike”.