Turning the tide on bus deregulation

Published on 22 November 2023

Ellie Harrison, Artist, activist and Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art Practice, tells the story of her award-winning Bus Regulation: The Musical Trilogy and the impact that it has had.

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Bus Regulation: The Musical (Greater Manchester) premiered at Manchester Art Gallery on 28 September 2019 (Photo: Andrew Brooks)

This year marks the beginning of the end for bus deregulation – one of the worst policy disasters of the Thatcher era which was imposed everywhere in Britain (except London) in 1986. I’m proud to have played my part in its long-overdue demise.

This journey began at Manchester Art Gallery in 2019, when I staged first version of Bus Regulation: The Musical in collaboration with the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign. Inspired by a childhood memory of watching Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1980s hit Starlight Express, my Musical featured local roller skaters playing superhero ‘buses’, to tell the history of public transport provision in the Greater Manchester area from the post war period, up to the present day. The aim was to bring to life the chaos caused by deregulation and make the case for re-regulating the buses now.

I returned to the Gallery this September to give a talk about the Musical and the part it played in what turned out to be a triumphant campaign – as in 2021, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, announced they would become the first UK city-region to proceed with re-regulating its bus network since 1986. That day, 24 September 2023, we had gathered to celebrate the launch of the first phase of the Bee Network – Greater Manchester’s new fully-integrated and affordable public transport network (being rolled-out across the region until 5 January 2025). A network made possible by their transport authority, TfGM, utilising the ‘franchising’ powers in England’s Bus Services Act 2017.

After the success of the Greater Manchester Musical in 2019, I began work to bring the project home to Glasgow (where I live). The aim was to stage a new Strathclyde version in collaboration with Get Glasgow Moving, the local public transport campaign I helped to establish in 2016, and still Chair today. Busy fundraising during the pandemic, I managed to research and produce the Strathclyde Musical at the CCA in Glasgow in April 2022, just ahead of the local elections. We had a great response from local people and the media – and helped to push our local politicians to commit to investigate the ‘franchising’ powers in Scotland’s Transport Act 2019. Though progress is still painfully slow (more on that below).

Cast from the production Bus Regulation

Bus Regulation: The Musical (Strathclyde) premiered at CCA Glasgow on 24 April 2022 (Photo: Erika Stevenson)

By then I was determined to try to make this project into a Trilogy, by staging the final Merseyside version in Liverpool in collaboration with Better Buses for Merseyside. It was clear that Liverpool City Region would be the next key battleground, as their Combined Authority was devising plans to re-regulate its bus network. There was due to be a big public consultation on the proposals at the end of 2022. 

But these three post-industrial city-regions had additional significance. Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool all have similarly high levels of poverty and deprivation (and therefore low levels of car ownership and lots of people completely dependent on buses). This is why they are used by population health experts as comparators when measuring the so-called ‘Glasgow Effect’ – the 30 percent higher excess mortality endured in the Scottish city. It was something I’d explored in my 2019 book, The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint. And so, I saw the Musical Trilogy as my own creative research highlighting the connections between public transport policy and population health, presenting a stark warning to Glasgow’s transport authority, SPT: if we do not follow Manchester and Liverpool’s examples and regulate our fragmented, expensive and unreliable buses, we will fall even further behind.

We managed to premiere the Merseyside Musical in November 2022 with support from the Bluecoat Arts Centre and Arts Council England. But unfortunately, the public consultation had been delayed until after their local elections this May. So I knew we had unfinished business…

The cast of Bus Regulation production on stage wearing capes and hard hats

Bus Regulation: The Musical (Merseyside) premiered at Bluecoat Liverpool on 13 November 2022 (Photo: Brian Roberts)

At the end of 2022, I was reflecting on what had been an intensely busy year and so decided to submit the Musical Trilogy for the University’s Stephen Fry Public Engagement Award, and I was absolutely delighted to win it! It was great to have recognition for the project, and the £1,500 prize was the boost I needed to start fundraising to re-stage the Merseyside Musical this summer to coincide with the long-awaited public consultation on bus ‘franchising’.

I was able to secure match-funding from the Foundation for Integrated Transport, alongside donations from local trade union branches who were backing the campaign. It was a shoestring budget, but we were able to use Liverpool’s iconic The Black-E community theatre and the stage was set for the show on Saturday 15 July. We had lots of media coverage: on BBC Politics North WestBBC Radio Merseyside and the Liverpool Echo – all raising awareness for the consultation and encouraging people to take part.

Following the closing date on 3 August, the consultation results were analysed showing 70 percent of the public in favour of re-regulation. Then on 6 October this year, we had another historic day with Mayor Steve Rotheram finally announcing that he would proceed with taking the bus network back into public control in order to deliver their vision for an integrated public transport system – the second only to do so since 1986. The first re-regulated buses should be rolling through the streets of St Helens in 2026.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority is hot on their heels with a public consultation currently underway, with a decision due in March 2024, and South Yorkshire is likely to follow. This means within the next five years 8.5 million people across the North of England will have regulated buses (alongside the 8.8 million in London who always have).

Meanwhile the Scottish Government continues to drag its heals – taking more than four years(!) to enact the ‘franchising’ legislation in their Transport Act 2019. (It took England two months). But finally, things are hotting-up as the powers become available to Scottish transport authorities on 4 December 2023. In anticipation, Get Glasgow Moving has helped to launch the new region-wide Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign (in the model those successful in England) to put pressure on SPT to re-regulate our buses. We hope this will set a precedent for other Scottish regions to follow. With Dundee’s buses going from bad to worse with their new private owners, there could not be a more urgent time to get Better Buses for Tayside off the ground.

Get in touch if you’re interested in getting involved: 

Written by: Ellie Harrison, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art Practice, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design