If you wanted to travel across rural Dorset on a Sunday, four buses used to run the twenty miles from Bridport to Weymouth.
The route meanders through areas of significant poverty. Although Dorset may first inspire images of limestone arches and pretty coves, eleven areas of Dorset are within the top 20 percent most deprived nationally for multiple deprivation. Ten of these areas are in Weymouth and Portland, to which this bus runs.
This winter, however, private operator FirstGroup decided to axe the Sunday bus service until summer, citing it as “unsustainable on a commercial basis.”
In stepped Alan Williams, a wealthy local pensioner who agreed to fund the Sunday service out of his own pocket through the winter months. He even arranged to extend the route to Lyme Regis, believing it important to those who use it. And no wonder — sixty-six Dorset neighborhoods fall in the top 20 percent most deprived nationally for access to housing and essential services. The few buses that do still run must be a lifeline.
And as of last Monday morning, having come under significant pressure following Williams’s offer, First has reversed the decision to axe the service. “We’re pleased to say that following recent conversations with Mr Williams that the X53 will be funded by First Wessex throughout this winter,” a First spokeswoman is quoted saying, after which she thanked Williams for his “hard work in raising awareness of the funding challenges faced by operators.”
Alan Williams’s selfless generosity meant those who depend on public transport will now remain connected with friends, family, work, and play. It was an admirable testament of the kindness of strangers. But the story also has a darker edge: beneath its surface lurks the systematic failures of public infrastructure, which increasingly seem to be propped up by private philanthropy. Not all private companies change their minds.
This is not the first example of well-meaning individuals offering to shoulder the costs of services nominally provided by the state. The most famous example is Captain Tom Moore, who during the pandemic raised £32.8 million for NHS Charities Together. Various other individuals followed suit. It appears to be increasingly common for public services to be the subject of charity fundraising.
The intentions are good — an indication of how much people in Britain care about its public sector, and each other. But ultimately, philanthropy is no sustainable substitute for provision of essential services by the state.
In many cases, the problem lies in how the public realm has been eaten from the inside out by private companies. Take the transport sector, and buses in particular. Average bus fares have risen by a staggering 403 percent since 1987, and thousands of miles of routes have been cut. Decades of privatization and deregulation, on top of austerity, have hollowed out the infrastructure on which the most marginalized in our society rely.
Philip Alston, formerly United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, lambasted the government in a report on England’s privatized bus system last year. One of the central issues? “The consequence of a commercialised bus system is that private operators aim to make a profit regardless of the cost to the public and the service itself.” This is acute outside of the London bubble and in rural areas, where the profit motive for shareholders simply doesn’t match with local demand.
In Dorset, Alan Williams expected to pay a “couple thousand pounds” for the Sunday bus service over the next three months. This seems small change for FirstGroup who, alongside Arriva, Go-Ahead, National Express, and Stagecoach, paid out on average almost £150 million a year to shareholders between 2008 and 2018.
Privatization’s twin — deregulation — has compounded bus network failures. As in the case of the Dorset bus route, private companies can decide how and when to provide services, if at all. Timetables and routes are rarely organized by local or regional government, but are fixed at the discretion of profit. There is no obligation for local councils to provide a minimum service, and often very little means to do so, as council budgets have desiccated over years of austerity.
On top of that, lack of government provision of public infrastructure also has severe climatic impacts: failures in transport provision harm decarbonization efforts. Without it, many people enter a vicious cycle of expensive, carbon-intensive car dependency.
To fill gaps, then, communities have had to be creative, with countless examples of local community transport organizations or community charities running transport services to prevent isolation and unemployment. The vulnerability of public services frames them as causes to be supported, rather than the fundamental building blocks of a functioning society.
The logic of private individuals plugging the gaps in public funding reaches right across public services, after years of chronic underfunding by central and local government. It has noticeably crept into the UK’s schools, with parents increasingly asked to chip in to fund basic educational needs.
Research by Parentkind of England, Scotland, and Wales found that in 2020, around half (44 percent) of parents have been asked to donate to schools, and over a third (37 percent) had actually done so. Those who are financially more disadvantaged are in fact giving more: parents of children eligible for free school meals are giving £12.90 on average per month, compared to £8.95 among those whose children are not.
The boundary is blurred still further when public services are tendered out by government to be run by charities. The voluntary sector received £15.8 billion from the government 2018–19, and many charities now run essential social services.
But these same charities are having to supplement the cost of running these services with their own funds. A study from 2017 found that nearly two-thirds of charities had used money from public donations to prop up health and social services they had been hired to provide.
Philanthropy for public services is often deeply commendable — done in a spirit of community, selflessness, and concern for the well-being of others. That it is necessary, however, is ultimately an indictment on our crumbling public infrastructure and the comprehensive failure of privatization.