I am one of the lucky few. I have been able to work safely and comfortably from home throughout the pandemic. I say lucky few because evidence suggests my experience is not the norm.
The Centre for Cities estimates that people able to work from home are in the minority in every UK town and city. London, Reading and Edinburgh have among the highest shares of people able to work from home (more than 40%). In Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke, just 20% of people can do so.
Many people in some of the hardest hit (and lowest paid) sectors – accommodation, food services, hospitality, arts, entertainment – have found themselves furloughed or made redundant – their incomes vanished or uncertain. Indeed, the UK’s lowest-paid workers are more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic than higher paid employees, according to the Institute for Employment Studies. Unemployment has hit its highest level for four years and could rise higher still after the furlough scheme ends.
Others have needed to continue to travel to work, venturing out to care for, feed, serve, teach and transport others.
The first lockdown saw us unite as one nation under a rainbow, clapping every week for the NHS and recognising – at last – the people that we as a nation really can’t do without. They became our key workers – the nurses and supermarket staff, the carers and the teachers, the cleaners and refuse collectors, the postal workers and the bus drivers. These people are important – they always have been, and they always will be.
The Welsh Government has been ahead of the curve here. Back in that other world that was 2019, they launched a £4.5m fund to test ways of supporting and growing their ‘foundational economy’. The services and products that the foundational economy provides exist to keep us ‘safe, sound and civilised’ as they put it. They include care and health services; food; housing; energy; construction; the high street and more.
The foundational economy encompasses many of those that we now think of as key workers. As long as there are people, these services will be needed. It makes sense to invest in them, to grow them and to support their employees. They are not always the most glamourous of jobs – they do not tend to be high-tech or focused on R&D nor do they have export potential. But they are local, they support communities, they are a safe bet, they are needed. The same could be said for the bus.
Throughout the three lockdowns, our members have ensured that public transport has been there for key workers, through thick and thin, long after the rainbows in the windows have faded.
This is vital work given that those who cannot work from home are more likely to be bus users – lower paid, less likely to have access to a car and travelling shorter distances to jobs that serve their local communities.
Key workers are perhaps less prominent in this latest lockdown, but they must never again be forgotten. Neither must we leave behind all of those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic or have seen incomes slashed and savings wiped out. They too will need coordinated, convenient and affordable bus services.
Pre-pandemic data tells us that some 77% of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike. The bus must therefore be ready and waiting to connect people to opportunities to move onwards and upwards.
However, its future feels far from certain. Before COVID-19, bus services were supported by a complex patchwork of declining, poorly targeted funding streams – hardly the pot of gold needed to keep fares affordable and prevent networks from shrinking. During the pandemic, the Government has rightly topped up funding to keep wheels turning. Nearly one year on from the first lockdown, the time is right to put bus funding on a secure, long-term footing, one that recognises the role the bus plays in supporting key workers and in enabling a just economic recovery that everyone can be a part of.
The additional £3 billion the Prime Minister has pledged for bus is an encouraging sign. But the forthcoming Bus Strategy offers the opportunity to go further. In it, Government should assess how much is needed to deliver better bus services and then simplify and devolve bus funding streams to transport authorities – those who are best placed to target that funding to achieve the best results for their people and places. Our briefing sets out the detail on how this could be done. In the first instance through temporary contracting of bus networks until we have arrived at a ‘new normal’ for bus use. And then moving to longer term arrangements – either through better regulated partnership arrangements with existing operators, the franchising of networks of services (as in London) or direct provision.
Whichever option is chosen, a devolved approach means that public transport networks could be planned and coordinated in a way that is accountable; puts local people and jobs first; and offers value for money for the taxpayer.
We owe it to our communities, to our key workers, to the people who need the bus the most, to safeguard its future and enable a just recovery for all.
Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group