Dead Towns

When money is tight it seems that the first thought is not to cut back on expensive luxuries but to protect luxuries at the expense of essential things. Hence, I was dismayed but not completely surprised to read that English bus travel is up for the chop again.

This is how small to medium sized towns die!

Set me sketch it out for a typical medium sized town. I’m thinking something smaller than Guildford but still big enough that it takes a bus to get from one side to the other.  Think of a town that is in the middle of a fairly rural area rather than a commuter town.

  1. It had a railway station but the Tories took away the trains in the 1960s.
    People were using those trains to get to work but the trains themselves were unprofitable so the figures were fiddled to make it look like nobody was using them and they were axed.
  2. It had a decent bus service but the Tories privatised the buses in the 1980s.
    People were using those buses to get to work but the buses themselves were unprofitable, and the councils could not afford to subsidise the full service, so it withered until only a minimal service remained.
  3. Now they won’t even support the minimal bus services that remain!

What happens to the town’s population in each of these three phases?

In the first phase (1960s) it becomes less attractive for medium to large employers to set up in your town without a train service. Employees can’t get in by train so recruitment is restricted. The residents switch to buses and cars while goods deliveries switch to large lorries. Your formerly pleasant town becomes congested with cars for two hours a day as it seeks to handle road traffic it was never built for and lorries thunder down the roads at night. People who work in other towns move to the periphery of the town to avoid the increasingly unpleasant centre or just move to the other town completely. Maybe you build an expensive bypass on the periphery but it doesn’t help much and people move even further out to get away from that. Businesses find it hard to get people or goods in or out of town. The town ceases to have a clear centre and sprawls.

In the second phase (1980s) the bus service reduces and your town also becomes less attractive to smaller employers as even local staff can’t travel easily without cars and are forced to switch. Customers are also affected. Companies have to waste ever more footprint on car parks if they want to stay in business. As bus use by employees and customers falls the bus service becomes even less profitable and declines still further with pensioners (and maybe students) being the majority of the remaining users. This leads the bus companies to reduce services in rush hours aimed at workers even more. Car use increases and the daily gridlock rises to three hours a day. The town’s economy suffers while the surrounding villages are pretty much destroyed without a decent bus service. Villagers are pretty much trapped without a car per person! Two and tree car households become the norm. Once tranquil villages are now full of Range Rovers. Garages now have the same footprint as the houses they serve.

In the final phase (starting now) the bus service collapses completely and the town itself goes the same was as the surrounding villages. Young people move out as there are few good jobs and no access to any night life for those who can’t afford taxis. Drivers who want to stop driving due to age or poor vision are incentivised to keep driving as long as they can (i.e. Until they have a serious crash!) as there is no alternative. Companies move out or close down. No new companies move in. No new young people move in. The population skews heavily towards the elderly. Life expectancy falls. At least the gridlock eases now that there is no rush hour to speak of.

Congratulations. Your living town is now a fully formed dystopia, but not a cool sci-fi type of dystopia with robots, just a boring and miserable one. It is mostly made up of pensioners who, once they are unable to drive, are left trapped in their homes watching TV and waiting to die. But don’t worry. Without any exercise or social activities to keep them going they won’t have long to wait… Yes, getting on a bus and going to the shops counts as both mental and physical exercise.

Congratulations. Your town is now dead! Nobody lives there. Nobody wants to live there. There are no people, no jobs, no services, nothing. You try to attract in some more pensioners but they are wise to what happened to the last lot and they won’t touch it at any price. Houses are put up for sale for one pound each and still there are no takers. Yes, even during a national housing shortage nobody wants them! You are now the king of a wasteland. It is yours to sell to the highest bidder in The Free Market. Do I hear 50p?

Can we fix this?

Yeah. If we actually want to.

It is quite easy. In fact, I wrote about this way back in 2010. Just nationalise the bus routes, put a public body in charge of the ticketing system and mandating the overall service levels. Contract trustworthy companies or organisations to run the services. Pay them according to the service level mandated. The public body would receive all the ticket revenue so the contractor would not have to worry whether the service was profitable overall, only that they can provide it for the cost agreed. If they screw that up then they get sacked and another company gets the work. The trick is to leave enough profit in it for the companies to make it worth their while to take the work seriously without turning it into a massive gravy train.

But isn’t this expensive?

Fairly expensive, yes. Of course, it is nothing like as expensive as building new roads or railways! Buses can be obtained relatively cheaply and they run on the roads you already have. You want to avoid using the most polluting old buses but they don’t have to be brand new. (Certainly not massively expensive Boris Bus style boondogles!) Driving buses is a decent job. Many of the people in the depressed semi-rural areas would jump at an opportunity to drive buses. The costs can be kept at an acceptable level. As the towns and surrounding rural areas recover, improved employment and business activity will drive up tax receipts. Unlike Trump’s stupid wall, some things really do pay for themselves.

What about the cost of free bus passes for pensioners and the disabled?

Under the current system, free bus passes are a way that local government subsidises the private bus companies, even if central Government refuses to see it that way. If they were done away with then the subsidy would have to be made up some other way if there is to be a bus service at all so the passes are not really the problem. Reducing the bus passes would only save money if the Government is content to see the bus services vanish entirely. Even then the saving is very uncertain. It would reduce pensioner life expectancy, saving money on pensions, but it could also lead to pensioners being in poorer health for longer as they lose their ability to live independently and require more care and NHS services. Dead towns don’t pay taxes and so tax revenue would suffer. It is perfectly plausible that withdrawing the bus passes could lead to misery and premature deaths and still not save the Government a penny. Trying to blame it all on the local councils and walk away is typical of the current Government’s inability to take responsibility for its screwups. (CoughBrexitCough!)

Under “my” proposed new system the ticket revenue comes back to the public body so, instead of paying the bus contractors to allow free travel, the public body can just instruct them to allow free travel for pass holders. The contractor doesn’t lose out as it isn’t their money anyway. The public body just receives less ticket revenue. The expensive and stupid system of issuing free tickets in order to get reimbursed later by the council would not be needed at all.

Is stopping the rot enough?

For now, yes, but in the longer term there could be scope to go further and reverse the damage. As towns recover there might be scope for larger businesses to move in and employ more people from the surrounding areas. As farming becomes less labour intensive this could save rural employment. Who knows, maybe that railway could even reopen one day? Maybe the solution to the sprawling growth of already large cities is to give smaller towns a chance to succeed and grow.

The Tories won’t like this, will they?

Almost certainly not. None of this is stuff is complicated, and what I propose already works well in large Cities which already have locally regulated transport bodies. Nonetheless there is no way that the Tories could stomach it. They would see it as an offence against the mighty gods of The Free Market. The dumb thing is that they are already giving tons of public money to private bus companies and getting very little in return. All I am suggesting is getting that under control by exercising some proper subcontractor management while still leaving room for the contractors to make a fair profit so long as they don’t screw the work up.

Brexit is going to sod this up isn’t it?

Yeah, Brexit sods everything up but I can still see what I propose happening post-Brexit.

After 20 years of Brexit the English economy will be utterly screwed. The Tories might not even exist any more. We would probably be in the process of re-entering the EU and desperate to find easy, cheap and pragmatic ways to get the wrecked economy back on its feet. When it comes to transport, investment in bus services offers a good quick return on even modest sums. We could source some second-hand buses from Scotland or Ireland (it has to be somewhere that drives on the left, obviously) and finally start to get England moving again.

February 9, 2019. #Brexit, Money, Politics, Sensible, Travel.

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