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public ownership Bring back the National Bus Company

Every single privatisation has seen the British public being taken to the cleaners financially and enduring second-rate services. NEIL CLARK explains why renationalisation is the only viable solution

THE year 1967 was quite eventful. It was the year of flower power, love-ins, the Six Day War and continuing conflict in Vietnam. So it’s not too surprising, given everything else that was going on, that the Labour government’s Transport Bill, doesn’t get much of a look in when the story of the year is told.

The bill though, and what it led to, needs to be remembered.

That’s because it provides a solution to the current crisis in public transport where passengers are being hit with drastically reduced services and ever-rising fares and taxpayers continue to subsidise private operators.

It was published 50 years ago on December 8 1967 and contained a number of provisions. It outlined plans for state-run garages and petrol stations and the setting up of three new state organisations — the National Freight Corporation, the Scottish Transport Group and the National Bus Company.

The bill, with some amendments, became the 1968 Transport Act, which in the words of economic historian Edmund Seddon, “marked a major reorganisation of the nationalised transport undertakings.”

The National Freight Corporation was created “to ensure the proper integration of road and rail freight services”  and this it did in exemplary fashion.

The National Bus Company co-ordinated the companies that operated under the state’s Transport Holding Company, set up under a Tory government in 1962, and the bus operations of the privately owned British Electric Traction, which had sold out to the government in November 1967.

A brand new chapter in bus travel began on January 1 1969 when the National Bus Company officially began its operations.

Local bus services were run by regional subsidiaries of the NBC — all of which all carried the distinctive “Double N” red and blue logo.
Long-distance coach services were operated by another National Bus Company subsidiary National, which became known in 1974 as National Express. National Holidays, meanwhile, offered the public cheap coach holidays.

The system worked splendidly. For the first time, England and Wales had a fully integrated publicly owned bus system. Not only that but the buses themselves were made by British state-owned companies providing jobs for skilled British manufacturing workers.
It’s fair to say that Barbara Castle’s Transport Act ushered in a new golden age of bus travel.

Never had it been so easy or so convenient to take the bus. The positive impact on society, and the environment, was considerable.

But it was all destroyed by the Tories in the mid-1980s. In 1984, the last year before Thatcher’s privatising, deregulating Transport Act was passed, the number of passenger journeys by bus was a remarkable 5.65 billion. By 1992/3 — four years after the last National Bus Company subsidiary
had been sold — the number had declined to 4.483bn.

Privatisation didn’t lead to better services as transport minister Nick Ridley and his chums promised but the opposite. Services were reduced,  just as opponents of the sale had warned, and fares raised way above inflation.

A 2014 report by the Institute for Public Policy research revealed that non-London bus fares in England rose by 35 per cent above inflation between 1995 and 2013 and 34 per cent and 20 per cent in Scotland.
Buses,  so cheap and so plentiful in the 1970s, became expensive and easy to miss.

Last November, the BBC reported how in Whittington in Lancashire the number of buses each week had been reduced from 111 to just five, all of which were school buses.

Up and down the country it’s been a similar story. In July, the Daily Telegraph reported that bus travel had dropped to its lowest level in a decade.

It really doesn’t have to be like this. Labour pledged in August to give local authorities more control over bus routes and restore cuts to the bus service operators’ grant.

But wouldn’t it be cheaper and less complicated to simply bring back the National Bus Company? This could be done by ending, or phasing out within a year, all current subsidies to private operators and then stepping in to bring the whole of bus travel, including long-distance operator National Express, back into public ownership.

It’s hard to think of a better way of commemorating the 50th anniversary of one of the most far-sighted transport bills ever presented before a British Parliament.
    
• Neil Clark is the Director of the Campaign for Public Ownership. Follow the Campaign @PublicOwnership and Clark @NeilClark66

Stamping on the public at Christmas

It’s still only early December and I’ve already lost track of the number of people who tell me they’ll be cutting back on Christmas cards this year because of the high price of stamps.

First class stamps now cost 65p and second 56p.

Once again, privatisation is having a detrimental effect to our pockets and undermining a great British tradition.

If we look at how stamp prices have risen in the last four decades, we can see quite clearly the link. Back in 1980 the cost of a second class stamp was  just 10p. By 2003 — a full 23 years later — the price had doubled to 20p.
The cost of second class stamps actually went down between 1998 and 2003, while the cost of first class stamps were frozen.

As late as 2007, the last year Tony Blair was in Downing Street, the price of a second class stamp was  24p. But the rise since then, and particularly since 2011, has been phenomenal.

In the build-up to privatisation the price rose from 36p in 2011 to 50p a year later. That was the biggest price rise for 37 years. But where was the outcry?

The privatisation of the Royal Mail has proved to be every bit a rip-off for the taxpayer as the privatisation of the railways.

Pension fund liabilities were offloaded to the public while the Royal Mail was sold for just £3.3 billion  around £1bn less than it should have been, according to a parliamentary select committee. Some made a killing, however, as the share price rose by 38 per cent on the first day of trading.
 

Lansdowne Partners, one of the world’s biggest hedge funds, and whose co-head of development markets strategy Peter Davies was the best man at chancellor George Osborne’s wedding, bought up a £50 million stake in the company bagging them a profit of £36m by 2014.

Remember Osborne and business secretary Vince Cable this Christmas when you go and buy your stamps and are shocked by how much you have to hand over. They’re the ones responsible.

Why not renationalise the railways straight away, Jeremy?

Another week and another assault on the pockets of Britain’s long-suffering rail commuters.

It was announced on Tuesday that train fares will be going up by an average of 3.4 per cent from January. A season ticket from Brighton to London will cost £4,332 in 2018, while one from Liverpool to Manchester (distance 35.4 miles) will be £3,152.   

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted in response: “The latest increase in rail fares is staggering. Private rail companies continue to cash in while passengers have to cough up. The next Labour government will bring our railways back into public ownership to end this rip-off.”

All good stuff, but why wait until you’re in government, Jeremy? Why doesn’t Labour, through one of their MPs, introduce a bill to renationalise the railways right now?

Straight after the election, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Labour would try to get some of its programme implemented.
A bill to renationalise the railways could be passed given the close state of the parties. Even if it doesn’t, then the exercise would expose those Tories who ignored the wishes of their constituents and voted to keep the present rip-off system in place.
A number of those Tories are in marginal seats in the “commuter belt.” A Labour bill to renationalise railways would put them in a very difficult position.

Do they vote with the government to defeat it and risk losing their seats at the general election or do they jump ship and support a popular proposal backed by a clear majority of the electorate, including Tory voters.
There are no real negatives with Labour testing the water on this issue. So why don’t they go for it?

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