A long time ago I got involved in a debate on a friends mailing list on rural transport issues, and for some reason felt moved to look it up and write properly on it. I then placed this on my website, and hell, it’s interesting enough to me to put up on the blog, just in case anyone else interested!
Introduction: The Rural Transport Dilemma.
Since the mid-seventeenth century the British population has progressively become more and more centred in urban areas, leading to a proportionately declining rural population. This demographic change reflects underlying industrial, agricultural and economic changes. Changes in economic conditions led the workforce to shift to the urban areas, and a subsequent grouping of service industries in those urban centres. The demographic relationship between city, market town and village has always been defined by economic forces, and the cultural and service industries are consequent to those economic processes, as depicted in the marxistant base-superstructure model.
The demographically proportionate loss of importance of the countryside has led to a decline in services available; examples are closure of village schools, shops and cottage hospitals which are considered economically unviable. In this sense there has been, some argue, a marked loss in the quality of rural life. Others have pointed out that historically rural life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, and have pointed out that improved roads, telecommunications and working conditions have vastly improved quality of life in the countryside. There was a marked shift in the iconography of the rural in the years 1914-1939, associating the concept of Englishness with the rural, though this new interest in the landscape has its roots in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. (Barrell, 1977) This informs most modern political thinking and potentially privileges the countryside beyond its economic and demographic importance – hence the political importance of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, National Trust, Rural Community Councils and most recently the Countryside Alliance. The iconography of rural England as a ‘green and pleasant land’ was a motif particularly notable in Thatcherite rhetoric.
Since the 1960’s (and arguably much earlier) rural Britain has undergone another change, in the shifting class balance of rural communities. Following the decline of agricultural labour the villages have seen an influx of prosperous middle class commuters and those who have moved there to enjoy the better ‘quality of life’ associated with the modern ‘mythology’ of the rural. These new residents almost always have cars, and a high enough income to offset the transport difficulty. They are often vocal in environmental protest against development of light industry or other commercial or infrastructure development which they see as changing the ‘essential nature of the village’, and act as a brake on development of new forms of employment. This has led to villages which contain two clearly distinct social groups with different agendas, and other villages which are little more than dormitory settlements or collections of weekend second homes. The lack of employment, escalating housing costs associated with this move to the country and lack of opportunities leads many of the rural young to migrate to the towns at the first opportunity.
What can not be disputed is that in terms of services people living in rural areas are immensely poorer than those who live in urban areas. This applies to the whole spectrum of service industries, from the emergency services to entertainment venues. Specialist services are concentrated in cities, and even an appointment with a GP may require a visit to the nearest market town, as may a visit to the theatre or cinema, the bank or the solicitor. Even weekly shopping may be unviable in rural shops; certainly far more expensive than a visit to a large out of town mall or hypermarket where competition and economies of scale pass on huge savings to the customer. Therefore life in the countryside requires adequate transport to allow visits to these services, and for most rural dwellers the obvious solution is private car ownership.
While private car ownership is an obvious solution it is not necessarily an ideal one. It requires considerable expenditure for purchase, fuel, tax, insurance and maintenance, costs which may be beyond the capacity of the rural poor. It is unsuitable to those whose age (all under 17 year olds and the very elderly), health or loss of license forbid car ownership.
‘Approximately one third of the population can not drive… nearly half of all women do not have a diving license (46%), compared to just under a fifth of men (19%).’ (Root, 1996, p.32) – based on Department of Transport, (1995), Transport Statistics Report, (HMSO, London).
As 10,033,000 people in England and Wales are under 14, and of the remaining 42,178,000, 33% do not hold a driving license we can estimate the number of persons currently at least partially reliant on public transport as c. 24 million. Just under half the total population of England and Wales! (46% overall). (Calculations based on Office for National Statistics, Monthly Digest of Statistics, December 1998).
In some car owning families one working partner may need the car most of the time; a second car is an unaffordable luxury. Even the cost of driving lessons may be beyond the rural young. There are of course other factors; for environmental reasons and traffic congestion we are often concerned with decreasing not increasing the volume of traffic on the roads.
The rural dwellers lack of services can be mitigated by decent transport, and this is why a great emphasis has been placed on the importance of rural public transport. Rural public transport brings all other services within reach. Rural Public transport however is often very limited. Railways are limited by where railway lines exist, and bus services are often infrequent. They are very rarely suitable for daily commuting to work; indeed many rural communities do not even have a daily bus service. This is because rural bus and rail services are often not economically viable – they operate at a loss.
The rural transport problem is not merely an issue in North Norfolk, Central Wales or the Scottish Highlands, all areas with low population density, and which people immediately think of. Rural transport problems arise in almost any county, where villages off major (inter-urban) bus and train routes experience a severe lack of service. What can be defined as a rural area? The simplest definition for a rural area that makes sense in a transport context is that by which the Shire counties (all except Greater London and the Metropolitan regions) are defined as rural. (White, 1995, p.142) Using White’s model in the 1991 Census 33 million, that is 65% of the UK population, lived in ‘rural areas’. The figure is offered here as indicative only – based on our earlier calculations, it would suggest that at least 15.6 million people were at least partially reliant on ‘rural’ public transport.
Government Policy and Rural Transport.
Governments facing the rural transport problem of uneconomic routes that serve a social need have adopted three main strategies –
- The market approach – where services are cut as unprofitable.
- Nationalisation of Public Transport, where the taxpayer directly supports unprofitable routes, or where cross-subsidization is used – the unprofitable routes are subsidised by profitable routes.
- Subsidisation- normally by Local Government, who give grants to service providers.
All three approaches have been tried, though often there is a mixture of all three in operation. Appendix One briefly describes the history of railway transport in the UK, and includes some major legislation. Glancing at the appendix should be sufficient to see that the railways have been full circle from private ownership to nationalisation and back to private enterprise. One of the reasons for nationalisation of the British railway system by the Atlee Administration given in the 1947
“public ownership of the principal forms of transport is needed to maintain minimum standards of service in urban and rural districts.”
(cited in Bagwell, 1984, p.viii).
This was held as a truism for three decades, and was based on long political experience. The perceived need to protect the transport infrastructure had led to the government control of the railways in the First World War, later state intervention and later nationalisation. It was seen as essential in any planned or mixed economy for the government to maintain a firm hand in the railway, haulage and bus industries, and the British mixed economy dictated that railways must be kept in state control was maintained until 1979 and the Thatcherite revolution.
Even in the period 1945-1979 there was an acknowledgement that rural bus services were often unprofitable in financial terms, yet still vital to the welfare of the communities served. The phrase ‘social economy’ was coined to refer to these intangible forms of wealth, such as access to services, health care, leisure facilities etc, which could not be measured in purely fiscal terms. For the good of the social economy it was deemed important to maintain services – hence the subsidisation and nationalisation of transport providers.
British Rail was created as a nationalised industry by the Transport Act of 1947, and a system of local authority licensing by Traffic Commissioners regulated the Bus Industry. The bus industry was provided with three types of subsidy – a fuel tax rebate, a new bus grant and an operational subsidy for which some central government funds were available to support loss making but socially necessary routes. (Moseley, 1979, p.118)
Owing to budgetary constraints and the fact that subsidisation is not always a desirable or realistic policy government has frequently looked for alternative methods of addressing the transport issue. In very rural districts, such as central Wales, North Norfolk or parts of the West Country passenger traffic would not justify even a limited bus service, so experimental schemes were adopted. Early experiments tended to revolve around minibuses, but it was soon discovered that the highest operating cost, the drivers wage, was just as high for a minibus as for a double-decker bus, and maintenance costs were also almost as high. Devon and Oxfordshire are currently experimenting with minibuses.
A more radical scheme was that implemented by Norfolk County Council in 1976. Eastern Counties Bus Company provided a fleet of minibuses that are driven by volunteer drivers, and after the Transport Act of 1978 they no longer require PSV licenses. This has become known as the ‘Community Bus’ approach. It does require significant public capital for provision and maintenance of the fleet, and a willing pool of volunteer drivers, but is extremely flexible in meeting the communities needs. (White, 1995, p.152) These buses are licensed by local authorities, and the scheme has continued and spread to the current day.
Other transport initiatives developed in the seventies included car-sharing, dial a ride, car hire and subsidised taxi schemes and a plethora of other experimental measures. The Department of Transport initiated an unconventional Transport scheme in 1976 which operated in Devon, North Yorkshire, South Ayrshire and Dyfed. (Blowers, 1977, p.53) Another initiative which is currently used in the Scottish Highlands and Devon involved the use of Post-Buses – the postman picking up and dropping off people from isolated rural communities while making their rounds, and experiments have also been made with using school buses to provide a limited service to such areas.
Experimental transport schemes were generally local initiatives, funded by County Council or District Council subsidies, with the exception of the limited DOT experiment of 1976. They were not regarded as a general solution, but rather a ‘top-up’ to provide services where the existing structure was pushed beyond feasibility.
County Councils have always had a requirement to make adequate provision and planning for public transport – many issue annual Transport Policy Programmes, though the legislation which calls for them has been relaxed since 1979. A good example is the Transport Plan for Gloucestershire (1996-2011) issued by GCC in 1996.
In essence, up till 1979 Public Transport was co-ordinated by Local Government, and in the case of the railways, British rail, both of whom accepted the existence of a social economy whose needs could not be met by market forces.
The Thatcherite Revolution
The importance of a unified system of Public Transport was considered self-evident until the 1980’s when the Thatcher administration began to question its value. In 1983, David Mitchell, Under Secretary of State for Transport stated
“Our philosophy and principle is that the pattern of transport should be decided by customer choice with competition providing the options.” (Bagwell, 1983, p. 36)
Combined with Sir Geoffrey Howe’s famous 1979 comment
“We need to enlarge freedom of choice by reducing the role of the state.”
this sets the underlying ethos of Thatcherite thinking on Transport and marked a radical break with all government transport policy since the Second World War. It led ultimately to a programme of privatisation of rail and bus industries. The New Conservatism adopted many core American Libertarian values – the free market, self reliance and individualism – Thatcher famously saying ‘there is no such thing as society’. The Radical Conservative assault on the ‘Nanny State’ was inspired at least in part by policy coming out of the Conservative economic think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute. Two hundred years before Adam Smith himself had famously advocated the free market in his book, The Wealth of Nations, and had suggested that there was an ‘invisible hand’ that regulated the market and would result in unbridled competition generating the best possible outcome. While it seems impossibly naïve, this political philosophy underlies the Thatcherite programme of deregulation.
The aims were laudable, and were set forward in Norman Fowler’s 1977 book The Right Track, published by the Conservative Political Centre, two years before he was appointed Secretary of State for Transport. Public transport should:-
“recognise that everyone needs access to public transport at some time”
“improve transport in rural areas”
“acknowledge that for millions without cars – the elderly, the young and the housewife – the bus is essential for mobility”. (Fowler, 1977)
which sounds like a call for greater state intervention. However, Fowler believed this could be achieved by :-
“…giving the user maximum choice and allowing the maximum of competition.” (Fowler, 1977)
This policy, which held that free competition would eventually result in the best possible service to the public, was implemented in the Transport Acts of 1979,1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983. The Thatcher government of 1979 sold off the NFC (National Freight Corporation) which was the first step in the deregulation of the bus and coach industry. Competition entered the rural bus market – and the result? In 1983 the Bus and Coach Council commented:-
“Thus far, there has been little response to the changes as far as conventional rural bus services are concerned. The hopes of the legislators have not been realised because the market has invariably not justified the commercial investment.” (cited in Bagwell, 1984, p.38)
The 1971 Town and Country Planning Act required that County Councils consider public transport in their structure plans (Barrow, 1978, p.8) but since 1985 they no longer directly run the services, with the exception of school buses which are maintained by Local Education Authorities. Their role today is largely supervisory and promotional, replacing the pre-1985 ‘co-ordination’ (White, 1995, p.2)
One eventual result of competition was that as companies clamoured to compete on the profitable inter-urban express market, such as Oxford-London, they were forced to reduce services in unprofitable rural areas. Also, in private hands, cross-subsidisation was no longer a reasonable option – pricing must be dictated by market; and this led to a rural fare rise in many regions. The Act did substantially reduce fares on the commuter and express routes. (White, 1995, p.74)
Are rural bus services really being cut back as a result of the Acts? Turning once again to the monthly statistics digest (December 1998) we find that from 1989/90 to 1996/97 vehicle kilometres for local bus services actually increased by 218 million km overall, and in the shire counties increased by 128 million km.
There has in fact been a consistent increase in service provision, while actual passenger use has continued to slowly decline. These figures indicate a development of the network – but are they proof that the Conservative free market policy is really working? Several points need to be taken into consideration. White’s definition of the ‘rural’ (White, 1995, p.142) as all shire counties is in many ways unsatisfactory – it includes large urban centres such as Gloucester, Leicester, York and Nottingham, and also includes large tracts of suburban England, such as for example Guildford in Surrey. Many of the journeys included in these statistics are likely to be urban or inter-urban routes, and transport brokers certainly do not recall seeing any significant increase in rural bus routes.
Perhaps the answer can be found in local government subsidies, intended to maintain existing levels of service. To quote –
‘When deregulation of local bus services was introduced in 1986, 85% of then existing service mileage was declared as commercial registrations. The County Council aimed to retain the existing service by awarding contracts for subsidised services at an annual cost of £420,000.’ (Gloucestershire County Council, 1996, p.39)
Since that time some services have been cut owing to lack of passenger traffic, and other services dropped by de-registering, but subsidy costs have continued to increase. District and Parish councils also make limited contributions towards maintaining essential services. GCC have undertaken to
‘provide socially necessary bus services, especially in rural areas, while maintaining value for money – Policy P18’ (GCC, 1996, p.41)
If this pattern of continuing to subsidise the local bus routes was maintained throughout the country it is hardly surprising that deregulation had such limited impact. The only difference is that the cost has been passed largely to local authorities, who no longer gain any of the profits which go to the bus companies.
Following the deregulation of the bus industry the next target was the privatisation of the railways. In July 1992 a government white paper New Opportunities for the Railways set forth the plan for the privatisation of British Rail, most of whose most profitable subsidiaries (ferries, hotels, etc) had already been sold in the 1980’s Transport Acts. The Railways Act of 1993 sold off British Rail, creating over 100 new companies, though only a small proportion are train-operating companies. However overall the privatisation of the railways has been considered a success – Department of Transport Notice 342 (Nov’ 96) claimed
“A clear trend of higher passenger numbers and lower subsidy costs is emerging in Britain’s newly privatised passenger rail companies…”
Many rail users would doubtless disagree with this rosy picture.
How this will affect rural rail services is not yet clear – we know that express and inter-city services make the most profits, but a pattern is emerging of reopening rural stations which fall along those profitable routes – a local example being Ashchurch, Tewkesbury. These open up rural districts to commuters who wish to work in the major urban centre – but they may ultimately also result in higher housing prices, displacement of the rural young and a further influx of urban dwellers who move to the countryside, commuting daily. Villages that have stations may become dormitory towns, but at least it opens up the possibility of employment.
- New Labour; The Blair Administration.
Labour came to power in a landslide election victory, and some have found within that victory further scope for concern about increasing poverty in rural districts. Bruce, Gordon and Kessell pointed out as long ago as 1995 that the –
‘greatest stimulus to concern about rural poverty is the changing political map of Britain. With affluent rural shire goes automatic Tory dominance… It would have seemed impossible only five years ago that the dominant political force would be reduced to controlling only a single English County Council.’ (Bruce et al, 1995, p.18)
The erosion of rural services has cost the Conservative Party dear, and New Labour has attempted to make it clear that it is not merely a party dedicated to the inner cities, instead making a strong attempt to reach out to the rural constituencies. With the current collapse and factionalism of the Conservative Party the Countryside Alliance is probably one of the most influential oppositional pressure groups, and Labour have to be seen to be considering the rural agenda.
New Labour have reinvented the Department of Transport, now the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. Their latest plans are set out in the White Paper Developing an Integrated Transport Policy. (1998). The major options explored are an image improvement in public transport, an attempt to balance transport needs against the environment and rural needs, and a desire to increase use of public transport and reduce private car use.
They are not proposing to re-nationalise any section of the transport industry, though they do suggest reintroduction of tighter regulation of bus and coach operations. The plan is largely however for quality partnerships between service operators and local government: the companies provided improved services, the local authority provides better operating conditions such as roads, bus shelter, and so on. Crucially the 1998 budget made generous allocation for rural transport for the first time in twenty years, when Gordon Brown pledged fifty million a year on rural transport. (BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/events/budget98/budget.htm, March 17 1998.) It has since been announced that £32.5 million will be available for rural bus subsidies, to e tendered for by Local Authorities.
New Labour’s strategy would appear to be an attempt to build upon the Thatcherite transport revolution, and improve conditions, rather than attempting anything particularly new. For rural transport, New Labour sees Community Buses, car sharing and other non-conventional transport project work as the essential way forward. These schemes have the advantage of operating on a local basis, and suiting local conditions, but are effectively grass roots responses to a problem which government seems unwilling to address. Instead they place faith in local experimental initiatives, a process which as long ago as 1976 was described in these terms –
‘It has to be recognised that unconventional services are not of themselves answers to the rural transport problem although the naïve optimism placed in them in some quarters may suggest otherwise. They may help to fill gaps in the conventional network…’ (Blower, 1977, p.53)
The Government White Paper on Transport (HMSO,1998) demonstrates this continuity of policy from the Conservative administration. Some attempts have been made to reintroduce a measure of government control – the creation of an advisory Strategic Rail Authority is proposed, as is a Commission for Integrated Transport. Both these however are effectively watchdog organisations, and the closest one comes to recreation of the pre-1979 system is in the placing of quality partnerships on a statutory basis.
Quality Partnerships are a New Labour buzzword, the idea being amelioration of social problems by joint public and private enterprise, or between local government and the voluntary or community sector. In a rural transport context, this represents some government funding being given to voluntary project schemes and agreements being drawn up between servile providers and Local Government. One example is that the Councils will promote bus services, create bus lanes to improve quality of service and improve bus shelters, in return for which the bus operating companies will invest in improving services. An interesting example of a quality partnership is provided by Cheltenham Borough Council who recently received many new bus shelters from the company Adshel, who in return raise revenues from selling advertising on their bus stops prominently placed billboards. However, this requires local government to make a series of management decisions about which partnerships to enter in to, and also to spend time and resources attempting to solicit suitable partners.
Traditionally partnership between voluntary projects, service providers and local government has often relied on Local Development Agencies (LDA’s) which are comprised of two main types of organisation, Councils for Voluntary Service and
Rural Community Councils. Already voices are being raised in the LDA’s about how their enforced new position as broker is ‘subverting their legitimate roles’ (Osborne, 1998, p.290) They are finding themselves trapped in the labyrinth of new funding processes, and are being forced to reallocate resources. One of the major dangers highlighted by Osborne for LDA’s is that of incorporatism, in which they become perceived as merely another arm of local government and lose their autonomy.
A Rural Transport Partnership scheme is to be created and given £4.2 million of central government funding, which is being used to fund a competition by which innovative experimental bus schemes are to be granted funds, providing local government is seen to be developing local partnerships.
The nature of rural poverty and the rural unemployment underlie all subsequent attempts to ameliorate rural transport problems. Rural districts are dying as living communities; a process which can be traced back as far as Elizabethan Enclosure Acts. The problems facing the village dweller today – a minimum wage economy, poor services, bad housing and high unemployment, have been part of the English political landscape since the advent of capitalism. In the country, the mixed economy favours few – only landowners and farmers have ever prospered, and today as services increasingly centralise car ownership is increasingly vital. Indices of poverty rarely show up rural poverty in it’s true depressing colours – car ownership in an urban area may be a sign of affluence, but in village communities it is a social necessity which reduces (via fuel, licensing and maintenance costs) disposable income and may actually exacerbate poverty.
If the countryside is to be anything other than a museum piece and a home for urban professionals and wealthy retirees, it is vital that we see a root and branch tackling of the problems of rural unemployment, service provision and welfare. The problem is, all of these rely on rural communities having adequate access to transport. The near insanity of introducing the free market to rural public transport has, I hope to have demonstrated, been offset by the heroic attempts of local government to maintain the funding necessary to keep services running. Unconventional modes of transport have their place, but they are not a universal panacea.
At least the Thatcherite transport revolution can be described as brave, albeit reckless and possibly disastrous. It is hard to believe any British government would be as foolhardy as to take the risk they did; yet New Labour has so far opted for low-key partnership ideas which leave a morass of paperwork to administrate, and are far from radical. Quality partnerships are placing a great strain on Voluntary and Community sectors, and it is hard to see how they hope to make unprofitable rural routes palatable to private enterprise.
The one piece of sanity in recent administrations thinking on transport is New Labour’s budgetary commitment to subsidisation, the £32.5 million granted opening up great possibilities for the provision of new routes. It may be too little too late. One can not help thinking however that transport is too important to be left at the hands of market forces; it requires integration, so that bus services and train services co-ordinate to make lengthy journeys possible. The market will not ensure that trains and buses are sympathetically time-tabled – only local authority control and nationalisation can achieve this, a lesson we learn from the complicated history of the railways.
Sometimes one can not measure the effects of a policy in purely fiscal terms – the social economy is a valuable concept. No one would advocate complete privatisation of all schools, and that the education of children should be a profitable endeavour. People do not ask that the police make a profit on law enforcement. These are prices we happily pay to live in a secure society, and we realise that in the long term there are lasting benefits from the provision of these services which outweigh the short term costs.
Rural transport opens up services to residents of the countryside, but it does something else as well. It offers them the possibility of employment, and hence offers knock on benefits to the whole community, as well as reducing the welfare costs which we pay anyway through taxes. Rural transport offers a scope for further education, for improved earnings and for the regeneration of the village community.
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Appendix One : A (Very) Brief History of British Trains.
The history of rail transport since is complex, and is most easily described in stages. I have briefly summarised the key stages below-
Stage 1 (1829-1914) Private Ownership
The British Railway system was the most expensive in the world to create. Independent companies scrambled to open profitable lines; the result was that many towns were served by more than one company’s trains. There were dozens of companies; a few owned as little as five miles of track! As rail ownership was profitable in this period an extremely extensive coverage was provided by the competing networks, with much duplication – there were three lines and three companies between Liverpool and Manchester. At one time almost no village in England was more than three miles from a railway station.
Stage 2 (1914-1921) Emergency Government Control
The First World War brought about reorganisation of the railway networks, which were placed directly under government control. This was originally seen as a short term expedient to improve the war economy; it was promised that after the war the lines would be returned to their private owners and shareholders. This period saw improvements in working conditions and services at little or no increase in operating costs; as a result 1921 saw considerable pressure for nationalisation.
Stage 3 (1921 – 1923) Private Ownership
The lines were returned to their owners as promised, but many companies faced financial ruin. Eventually in 1923 the government, while resisting the call for nationalisation, once again intervened.
Stage 4 (1923-1949) The Big Four (Consolidated Private Ownership)
The government’s solution was to consolidate the networks into four large regional networks, known as ‘The Big Four’. These were the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish), GWR (Great Western Railway), LNER (London and North-Eastern Railway) and the SR (Southern Railway). Some smaller independent companies continued to operate, a notable example being the Somerset & Dorset, but the ‘Big Four’ was a major move towards rationalising the system.
Stage 5 (1949-1993) British Rail
The nationalisation of the railways by the Railways Act of 1947 brought all services directly under State control. This led to improved rural services as extensive cross-subsidisation occurred; despite this rural line closures were inevitable, and under the Beeching reforms huge parts of the rural network were dismantled.
Stage 6 (1993-today) Privatisation
From 1993 the railways were privatised.