Another “Alston Report” – why some of you may not be using buses any more…

It is just over two years ago that a Liberal Democrat Peer, made the following intervention;

My Lords, the reality on the ground is that rural bus services have been in decline for some years now, to the extent that there are many quite large villages which no longer have any kind of bus service at all. Have the Government made any assessment of the impact this is having on residents’ ability to access essential public services such as health and education?

As it turned out, the Government rather hadn’t. But now, Philip Alston, along with colleagues Rebecca Riddell and Bassam Khawaja, has published “Public Transport, Private Profit – the Human Cost of Privatizing Buses in the United Kingdom”. And, as someone who lives in a village which lost its last scheduled bus service a decade or so ago, you might not be surprised that I took rather more interest than might otherwise be the case.

But, of course, it’s not just small, rural villages that are now cut off from the bus network. As the authors note, some 3.34 million people could not reach any food stores within fifteen minutes by public transport. That adds costs for the rural poor, adds traffic to the roads and leads to those who can’t drive for whatever reason to be forced towards larger communities in order to function more easily.

Interestingly, the “right to public transport” is emphasised. Now, I might once have thought that, amidst the rights that people should have, public transport might not be high on the list but consider this;

  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1976, obligates the government to promote realization of the rights to work, healthcare, education, social security, food, and an adequate standard of living.
  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the United Kingdom ratified in 2009, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to transportation on an equal basis with others.
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which the United Kingdom ratified in 1986, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure the right of women in rural areas to enjoy adequate living conditions, including in relation to transport.

I must, in fairness, exclude London, Scotland and Wales from relative criticism. Each of these jurisdictions has much more power over bus services than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and it is notable that bus services have expanded and fares remained relatively accessible. But when bus fares have risen by an average 403% since 1997, you can see how bus services elsewhere have gone into a seeming death spiral – higher fares lead to rider figures falling, which leads to growing unviability of routes, which leads to unreliable erratic services, which leads to lower rider figures…

The report makes five recommendations;

  • embrace public control of bus services
  • guarantee access to public transport
  • support local authorities
  • ensure affordability
  • combat climate change with a strong bus system

And, ironically, these are things that Liberal Democrats in the Lords in particular have been promoting for at least the past two decades. Perhaps we should be putting ourselves full square behind this report as a way of improving lives, attacking poverty, improving access and fighting climate change…

* Mark Valladares is the Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council and uses a community bus service as part of his home to work journey.

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  • It sort of seems one of those lovely “apple pie and motherhood” things on LDV that we all want a lovely high-frequency regular all day, all night bus service.

    Except large numbers of us would still use our car! And we shouldn’t be unaware of the immense advantages that cars offer. And they will become electric very soon and so stop contributing to global warming.

    I would also suggest that people do (to a large degree) chose where they will live – and live in a rural area and you will get worse public transport than an urban area.

    We do need though to find greater flexible ways of providing public transport. Community run mini-buses. Dial-a-ride. Looking at using former railway lines for light rail/trams. Car sharing apps. I suspect when (shortly) we get to self-driving cars – quite a few people will not own a car but call up a “Google car” to drive itself around to them.

    It has its drawbacks – but these days – everything can come to you via the internet – food, goods, people via Zoom etc. etc.

    Of course there is a role for the traditional bus service and we need to run that as outlined as a service – so you get paid for a franchise – not just holding a local authority to ransom for late night etc. services.

    But we shouldn’t look back nostalgically to the fifties to think that the only alternative is a bus meandering its way through the Yorkshire dales.

    And I am sorry but there are going to be drawbacks wherever you live – and we should of course look to mitigate them by collective provision. But the more rural area you live the worse your public transport by definition as there is less public, probably also the worse your broadband. Live in cities – particularly London you get a good or very good public transport system, probably better broadband but less fresh country air. It’s (to a very large degree) a question of personal choice!

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 19th Jul '21 - 10:02pm

    @ Michael,

    It sort of seems one of those lovely “apple pie and motherhood” things on LDV that we all want a lovely high-frequency regular all day, all night bus service.

    I have to admire the construction quality of your straw man, given that the article doesn’t ask for that, nor does the report.

    Here in Mid Suffolk, there are very few buses away from what you might describe as key routes joining the larger towns to Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. The slack is picked up by a community bus service which does not offer concessionary fares – oddly, it does in every other Suffolk District.

    And the answer is not running metro-style bus services – as you rightly say, they won’t get used that much, require huge subsidy, and not help to address climate change much. But, Mid Suffolk is served by three minibuses, operating from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which need to be booked in advance, covering an area of 336 square miles and a sizeable number of small villages. You could do better than that, and help the elderly stay in their familiar villages, the rural poor to get around to use services and seek employment, and the cost wouldn’t be huge.

    That story is repeated around rural England, where even sizeable villages have lost their bus connections to the nearest town. And, as local authorities are now forbidden to run bus services themselves (with the exception of existing municipal bus companies), the ability to use school transport vehicles to provide services between school journeys, or to cross-subsidise is lost.

    The idea of car sharing schemes or Uber is an amusing one though – they tend to rely on having significant, relatively densely populated communities to serve. My wait time for an Uber is measured in years, not minutes.

    Just read the report, rather than demonstrate what you don’t know about rural public transport – and one day, you might be able to reach some of the loveliest parts of the country via reliable public transport. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jul '21 - 11:01pm

    The excellent report by Phillip Alston into poverty, in the Uk, has inspired some of us here.

    I wrote about it in an article a couple of years ago

    Our close friend and colleague on this site David raw put a copy of it into the capable but report empty hand of Sir Ed Davey who said he had not yet read it.

    Here in this report our transport is the subject. I think for an American on the left or centre left, he is correct but here he needs to take into consideration the nuances described by the colleagues above.

    I think the problem is too much is either or. We do not merely need a state owned or run service. In Nottingham we have that and it itself is too expensive because as Alston knows all buses are obliged to run for profit.

    We need a multiplicity of providers, all not run for profit.

    This would be beneficial in all public service contracts. Whoever runs them is not all that counts often. It is that they do more than count money!

  • It is increasingly not just rural areas that have lost/are losing services. Larger towns are losing services as well. Look at bus timetables in your area and see how many routes reduce or disappear, urban and rural, after 6 or 7pm or on a Sunday or Bank Holiday. I live in a large built up area in a fair size town. We once had competiition so had fairly good services but the big bus co can soon drive out the small competitor. I have a fully DDA compliant bus stop just outside my back gate. As an individual with a disability it would be ideal. Unfortunately the last service ran over 2 years ago.
    I had a period of working and driving for one of the big companies. They were very clear that they looked at things on an individual route by route basis and expected a certain level of profitable return – at the time 14%. Those routes that made it got increased frequencies and new/newer buses. Those that didnt withered away – older buses allocated newer buses to other routes or depots and if a shortage of vehicles/drivers happened sometimes they were the routes cancelled. DDA compliant buses only came into use as they had to be forced to comply.
    I dont have rosy tinted view of buses from the past. There was much that could be wrong in their day from municipal companies but they tended to recognise socially important routes and profitable routes cross subsidised these that cost .
    There is no easy answer but a good step would be to look at beaking up the big companies monopolies as they take active steps to avoid competing with each other. Ridleys original idea of individual drivers owning individual buses, like taxis, and competing was never going to happen and we dont want a repeat of the free for all of anything that could move,no matter how unsafe, swamping routes that happened when deregulation was first introduced.

  • I find the artificial city/country divide very depressing. Telling the “rural elite” that they are rich enough to stop whinging and move to the city if they don’t like the lack of transport is unfair, and in many cases the stereotype is untrue.

    Some people were born and brought up in villages or farms through no fault of their own, and only a few can expect to inherit the country mansion. There are people who do low paid but important jobs in the countryside, such as farm working, caring for rural residents, working in local shops, providing services for the local council, and so on. Why should they be denied a trip to the nearest town on their nights off? Do we know what a 10 – or 15 – mile taxi ride actually costs? For some, it’s a very rare treat. Many struggle with housing costs as they are; moving to the nearest large town/city, let alone London, would be simply unaffordable.

    There are voters in the countryside who used to come our way but have left us for other parties. Re-connecting with them is essential; rural transport is one part of the way back.

  • “@ Michael,

    I have to admire the construction quality of your straw man, given that the article doesn’t ask for that, nor does the report.”


    Well… I appreciate the point! I was exaggerating for rhetorical effect. The report though does note for example the problems that one person has – and about the only bus user it does quote (and it doesn’t state where they live) because he ends his shift at 2am in the morning he has a 45min walk home. Tough. But I doubt whether virtually any bus service (outside of London) – did ever provide such a service – especially in more rural areas Or whether it would be viable or the best use of taxpayers’ money.

    I should clarify two things. Firstly I was not talking about Uber but apps that perhaps can bring people together on a voluntary basis – Mrs Jones may for example need a trip to the shops while Mrs Smith does the school run in that direction every day. Perhaps the two can be brought together. Of course good parish councils/councillors can also do this. Even in London I believe in Sutton – it was probably on LDV some time ago – the are poorly served routes where buses do a route but people can hail them. Also admittedly on long distance routes there are companies taking on National Express etc. with apps that will test out whether there is demand for a route – it may be possible to do more map out potential demand in rural areas. Also by about 2040, it is likely that you will “whistle” and a self-driving car will turn up on your doorstep. This will be a particular boon for those on low incomes but need a car occasionally – esp. in rural areas. As you are talking many thousands of pounds of “sunk” costs owning a car – depreciation, insurance, tax etc. before you drive one mile. And even in rural areas – making cycling easier and safer. And cycling can often be the key to that tricky last mile or three such as for example um… Stowmarket to Creeting St Peter

    And there are a wide range of other innovative ways that we can help solve the problems. And I appreciate there has been a lot of innovative thinking. These were the type of things I was trying (very briefly) to get to.

    Secondly public transport clearly needs more funding. And we should be clearly making that point. But we do have to realise that there probably isn’t oodles of money for it any time soon and so we need to be creative. Not to – is to let people down!

  • Cambridge has launched driverless shuttle buses
    This may offer a future solution to affordable transport in sparsely populated areas.

  • Perhaps more importantly we should be thinking of a 2040s public transport system and not a 1940s one. Mid Suffolk at the 2011 census had 12% of households without a car. And Creeting St Peter 3% without a car. At that level Creeting St Peter is not going back to having a full scheduled bus service any time soon – but it seems that solutions have been found. And we need to think creatively on how we will help that 3%-12% – see above.

    In Mid Suffolk as a whole lack of car ownership is concentrated in the bigger towns which I note have a (very) good rail service linking Ipswich, Needham Market, Stowmarket (very close, I believe to Creeting St Peter) on to Bury St Edmonds and Cambridge.

    The report did slightly annoy me in several regards:

    1. Access to food – and something you note in your article. This has vastly improved and (virtually) the whole UK has access to cheap, high quality supermarket food for a delivery charge less than it takes to go to the supermarket to pick it up.

    2. Carbon Emissions. As I noted by 2040 virtually all cars will be electric – so this is not relevant – although there are issues about how low carbon the electricity grid is and there are as @Ian Sanderson (RM3) issues about designing towns better..

    3. The report bemoans the lack of information on how to get about about on public transport? Well – really? Google Maps (and many other apps – bus company apps etc. etc.) makes this light years ahead of a few years ago….

    etc. etc.

    In short it’s a terrible report.

    Finally of course no-one is saying that Thatcher’s privatisation of buses was success – least of all, I believe, Thatcherites. And of course – we need bus services to be run as a whole and indeed public transport as a multi-modal whole.

    But we need to look forward to a 2040s bus service not romantically back to a 1940s one.

    Thanks, Mark for the original article and taking the time to comment on the points I raised and also through you, if I may, to Baroness Scott of Needham Market for raising this for debate in the Lords via an oral question – see Hansard at

  • @Joe Bourke


    More there in actually practically solving the problem than in acres of guff from Alston or ill-thought through praise from Mark V.

  • James Fowler 20th Jul '21 - 11:29pm

    Can someone tell me about Philip Alston’s qualifications for producing this report? Has he ever been involved with transport provision either in government or in the business? What on earth qualifies him to comment on this matter over and above a large number of long standing UK transport professionals? Have any of them endorsed this report?

  • Michael 1 19th Jul ’21 – 7:39pm:
    And [cars] will become electric very soon and so stop contributing to global warming.

    Even if CO2 does contribute to global warming electric cars aren’t likely to reduce CO2 emissions anytime soon. They merely transfer the emissions from the car to the power station. Charging a car with electricity generated by burning gas emits little less CO2 than a petrol powered car. Even in the UK, cars are sometimes charged with electricity from coal-fired plants. Coal emits around twice as much CO2 as gas per kWh. Coal and gas-fired power plants are our environmentally marginal power stations – those we would knock off first if we were using less electricity by not charging electric cars.

    The production of a 100kWh lithium-ion car battery releases between 15 and 20 tons of CO2. At average UK annual mileage a typical petrol engined car would take a decade to emit as much CO2. Even a Bentley Mulsanne (CO2: 393g per km) has to be driven for over 40,000km to emit as much.

    ‘New report highlights climate footprint of electric car battery production’ [June 2017]:—arkiv/2017-06-21-new-report-highlights-climate-footprint-of-electric-car-battery-production.html

    According to the authors of the report, the production of lithium-ion batteries for light electric vehicles releases on average 150-200 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt-hour battery. One of the smallest electric cars on the market, Nissan Leaf, uses batteries of approx. 30 kWh; many new models have batteries of 60 and 100 kWh. An electric car with a 100kWh battery has thus emitted 15-20 tons of carbon dioxide even before the vehicle ignition is turned on. This calculation assumes a 50-70 per cent fossil share in the electricity mix.

    Here in the UK 100% of our marginal electricity comes form burning fossil fuel (almost always gas) so CO2 release for a battery factory in the UK would be even higher than in this report’s calculation.

    The full energy life-cycle cost of mining, processing, transporting, manufacturing assembling, maintaining, running, scrapping, recycling, and disposal should also be considered. The lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars degrade with age and the number of charging cycles. Will they be economic to replace, both on the first and second occasion, or will the car be prematurely scrapped?

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 20th Jul ’21 – 8:33am:
    As someone who has owned an electric car for 3 and a half years, I must point out that they are not the whole answer. They stop kerbside pollution…

    The majority of kerbside air pollution is caused by particulates from brake, tyre, and road surface wear. While an electric car’s regenerative braking reduces brake wear, their heavier weight due to their batteries increases tyre and road wear…

    ‘Pollution From Tyre Wear 1,000 Times Worse Than Exhaust Emissions’ [March 2020]:

    Harmful particle matter from tyres – and also brakes – is a very serious and growing environmental problem, one that is being exacerbated by the increasing popularity of large, heavy vehicles such as SUVs, and growing demand for electric vehicles, which are heavier than standard cars because of their batteries. […]

    Using a popular family hatchback running on brand new, correctly inflated tyres, we found that the car emitted 5.8 grams per kilometer of particles.

    … and reduce overall pollution as our electric grid is advancing in using renewables.

    Unless you live off-grid with your own renewable supply your car is always charged with electricity generated by burning fossil fuel (usually gas, occasionally coal). That is always the environmentally marginal source of electricity in the UK and will remain so for many decades to come.

    At 12.00 noon today, UK electricity demand was 36GW supplied by these sources: nuclear (13%), combined cycle gas turbine (44%), biomass (7%), coal (3%), wind (1%), solar (18%), imports (12%). If we prioritise the environment then our marginal electricity is the 0.97GW (3%) which is being generated by burning coal. If we had less demand, that single coal-fired power station is the one we’d knock off first. So if someone was adding to demand by charging their car at this time they were doing so with electricity generated by burning coal. That releases around twice as much CO2 per mile as a similar sized petrol engined car. Charging overnight using electricity from the gas-fired plants that are then the marginal supply would halve CO2 emissions to little less than the petrol car.


  • Peter Hirst 2nd Aug '21 - 2:54pm

    Usable public transport is essential if we are to reduce car dependency. As well as rural communities, large new developments should have plans for public transport as part of allowing them planning permission. Refusing such a development on these grounds would provide a pivotal swing in our aims for comprehensive environmental planning.

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