What does Brexit mean for buses? Part 1: the challenges we face

This Latest Thinking article is an abridged version of Neill Birch’s paper to the UK Bus Summit on 9 February

What does Brexit mean for buses? Even asking the question makes my heart sink a little; we’ve become so used to the empty sound of ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  And let’s face it, the role of buses in the referendum was not an entirely honourable one; the promises painted on the Brexit Bus have come to epitomise the sort of post-truth politics that are adding a peculiar toxicity to the European debate.  The Prime Minister’s recent clarification of the Brexit strategy is helpful in providing more certainty, but it simply underlines the challenges that the public transport sector will face.

The obvious starting point is also the most difficult: free movement of people. This was the single most contentious issue during the referendum debate. Despite impassioned argument for maintaining a liberal immigration policy (even from some prominent Leavers) restrictions on freedom of movement from EU countries are surely coming. And this is bound to be a concern to bus operators, because the sector is very labour intensive and has relied for some time on citizens of other EU countries to fill staff vacancies. Labour accounts for two-thirds of operating costs in bus services that are often already overstretched. There is little room for manoeuvre. Any significant increase in wages driven by immigration restrictions is likely to mean fewer or worse buses, or both.

This is something that government must understand. Public transport is an everyday part of most citizens’ daily lives, a significant fall in quality has a profound effect on quality of life. An ill-considered policy on immigration won’t just hurt the pockets of bus operators but will immediately be felt by voters and quickly converted into political anger that will be vented at the ballot box.

The industry needs to make its voice heard now to influence the debate positively before unsatisfactory political aspirations on immigration harden into disastrous unchangeable political positions.

Neill Birch will be speaking at The UK Bus Summit as part of a session entitled ‘Bus policy in a post-Brexit world’ alongside Valerie Shawcross CBE, Deputy Mayor of London for Transport, Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister for Transport and the Islands, Scottish Government, Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive, Stagecoach, in a session chaired by Prof. David Begg, Chief Executive, Transport Times.

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