UNITED KINGDOM: “People started to call for the public ownership and control of all our public transport” – Interview with Ellie Harrison, activist in Glasgow

We interviewed Ellie Harrison, a British artist and activist based in Glasgow. Ellie sparked controversy in the UK after announcing her year-long project The Glasgow Effect, for which she refused to leave Glasgow or use any vehicles except her bike for the whole of 2016. She did so in order to underline the dramatic socio-economic and health inequalities in the city, connecting this to issues such as privatised public transport in Glasgow and the carbon footprint of our daily journeys. In her work as an activist and artist, she has launched several campaigns for the public ownership of public transport, such as Bring Back British Rail in 2009 and Get Glasgow Moving in 2016.

Photo by Andrew Brooks (taken at the Bus Regulation: The Musical rehearsal at Manchester Art Gallery in September 2019

Photo by Andrew Brooks (taken at the Bus Regulation: The Musical rehearsal at Manchester Art Gallery in September 2019

Could you tell us about you as an activist and an artist and how these two aspects intertwine and about your latest project “The Glasgow Effect”?

I trained as an artist and I arrived in Glasgow to pursue a Master in Fine Arts without knowing much about the city. It was also the beginning of the global economic crisis of 2008 and the following recession. I started using my artwork to research and look critically at the economic system and the impact that it has on quality of life. I began to discover how our economy has changed as a result of neoliberal policies, in particular privatisation. At the same time, there was an increasing awareness regarding the global climate emergency and the need to reduce carbon emissions. In the midst of all of this, I thought I could not continue being an artist if I didn’t try to address these problems.

In 2009, I launched my first campaign for the public ownership of the railways in the UK (privatised in 1994), called Bring Back British Rail. I came to realise how the current system did not encourage people to use public transport. Because train tickets are so expensive, people are increasingly taking short haul flights or buying cars, the opposite of what we need to do to address the climate emergency.

After a few years living in Glasgow, I started learning more about the city and its glaring contradictions; a city that presents itself as very egalitarian and socialist, but that actually appeared to be one of the worst places in the UK and certainly, in terms of health inequality, the worst in Western Europe. This inspired me to do The Glasgow Effect in 2016. For this project, I decided I was not going to leave Glasgow and I was going to see what would happen if I invested all my time, my energy and my ideas trying to address some of the glaring problems that I could see in the city, particularly its poor public transport system. I wanted to explore ways to make the city more sustainable, more equal and more connected, and to slash my own carbon footprint for transport to zero.

The name of this project refers to the then unknown reasons why people who live in Glasgow have worse health outcomes than people who live in similar post-industrial cities in England (such as Liverpool and Manchester). When the project was launched online in January 2016, it became really controversial because of the public funding I received from Creative Scotland to do it. This caused a massive social media outrage… I was perceived as an outsider, as this ‘middle class English woman’ being ‘parachuted in’ to Glasgow to do the project. But as a result of all the attention, there is at least more awareness of the city’s public health problems and more pressure on politicians to act.

In one of the final chapters of your book on the project, you discussed a really interesting concept, Municipalism, meaning connecting with the city you live in and contributing to the society, being an active actor of change. How do you think this concept can be applied in the struggle to fight the cycle of poverty and growing inequalities in Glasgow?

The way I introduce the concept of municipalism is by showing how, at the end of the 19th century, the UK was once a pioneer in local government, city planning and localised power but, over the 20th century, it became one of the most centralised administrations in Europe, if not the world. But municipalism is coming back, and there is a new global movement of citizens reclaiming power over their cities and the keys services that we all need to live. Barcelona is leading the way. In 2015 a movement of local citizens won control over the administration in their local elections and started to change the system from within, so that it becomes more democratic, more accountable, taking services and infrastructure back into public ownership. I think this is what Glasgow needs to do in order to improve people’s health. One of the connections I try to make in the book is between activism, civic engagement and health and well-being. If you feel that your actions can improve your local area and are having a positive effect, this gives you a sense of empowerment. The research around ‘the Glasgow effect’ shows that there is so much apathy because citizens feel they are being ignored and are disempowered on so many levels, particularly in our broke political system. On the top of that, the policies of privatisation which were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, meant that we willingly gave over so many of our key services and infrastructure to companies all over the world. This is the level of disempowerment I’ve been focusing my campaigning on, aiming to return these services to public ownership.

Bring Back British Rail was your campaign focusing on the national level. Now you are working more on the local level in Glasgow? And also how did you manage to engage people in the fight for public transport?

Bring Back British Rail is ongoing, but since 2016 I focused my attention on how the city worked and I began to invest a lot of my time in local public transport campaigns. Looking at the private bus companies I began to shift my thinking away from re-nationalisation to the re-municipalisation of public services as the answer, because, the closer the ownership and the control to the people who rely on a services, the more empowered we feel as citizens to change it if something goes wrong. I also went from being obsessed with trains (mainly used for long-distance journeys), to buses (mainly used for short journeys), because ultimately we all need to travel less. So the better we can make our local transport links, the easier it is for people to travel locally, the more we can localise our economy and cut carbon.

It has actually been really easy to mobilise people, because there was a massive void in Glasgow. Many people were suffering alone at the hands of these private bus companies: waiting at the bus stop in the rain for buses that were not turning up or not going out on a Sunday evening because there was no bus to bring them home or coping with the fares going up and up. They knew that this system did not work and was ripping them off. We managed to tap into this massive latent anger in the city and we connected it with the structural problem, i.e privatisation, the lack of coordinated planning of the network and lack of regulation over the fares. People started to join the dots and to call for the public ownership and control of all our public transport.

This has meant we’ve been quite successful in terms of lobbying politicians and winning changes to legislation that would allow for publicly-owned buses. The company that owns most of the bus routes in Glasgow has only existed since the 1980s when buses were de-regulated. It used to be a Scottish company but now is a multinational corporation based in New York. As soon as you tell people that, it is clear to them that this company does not care about the bus system in Glasgow, it just cares about making money. And it is the poorest people who do not have access to cars that are suffering at the hands of this capitalist system, while others are being forced to buy cars which is the opposite of what we need to do.

Photo by Bruce White (taken at the Publicly-Owned Buses for Scotland rally at the Scottish Parliament on 3 October 2018)

Photo by Bruce White (taken at the Publicly-Owned Buses for Scotland rally at the Scottish Parliament on 3 October 2018)

So far, I have seen from the website of the campaign you are running that you had a petition signed by 7,000 people and you organise public gatherings… Which other tactics are you using? Have you used or thought about using other more disruptive ones?

We might! [laughs]

Get Glasgow Moving is three and half years old and during this time we’ve been pushing forward different strands of the campaign. At the moment we are trying to formalise the structure so that we can grow. We got a constitution, then applied for a grant. We are redesigning our website, finalising the membership scheme so that people can make donations. All these aspects, although boring, are really important for how the campaign can become sustainable in the long term. Alongside that we have been lobbying at the Scottish government level, which has ultimate power over nearly all aspects of our transport system. The Scottish government presents itself as a ‘social democratic’ force that cares about the people, but it is actually presiding over a public transport system, particularly a bus network, based on Thatcher’s policy of de-regulation that it has done absolutely nothing to change in 20 years of power.

A Transport Bill was passed last year and we managed to put forward an amendment to allow for public ownership of buses. This was a big win for us. But now that it has been passed, it is down to the regional and local authorities to use these powers and to get the national government to provide the funding.

I think we should get more militant. If they do not use these new powers, we will be really angry. We are concerned that they will keep signing deals with the private bus companies behind our backs, so we need to go and occupy board meetings of the regional and local authorities so that they know we are watching their every move.

In your campaigning, did you or other people from the mobilisation experience any form of pressure from, for instance, the private bus companies that maybe felt threatened by your activism? 

They do feel very threatened, they attack us on Twitter. That’s as far as they have gone so far. It is kind of pathetic to see these CEOs of big private companies attacking a community-led campaign.

Meanwhile, we have been watching what is happening in Manchester and we have been working quite closely with Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign. We are waiting to find out in March whether buses will be re-regulated or not. It will be a big moment for all of us campaigning!

Also, what we saw in Manchester was private bus companies getting together to launch a campaign ‘Getting Greater Manchester Moving’ (recalling our collective initiative Get Glasgow Moving!) investing millions of pounds in propaganda, trying to win passengers over that regulating the buses is not the answer and aiming at maintaining the status quo. So I think that when we get further with our campaign in Glasgow, this might happen as well.

So are you connected to other struggles elsewhere in the UK, Europe or at the global level? Did you join forces with other activists as you did in Manchester?

Yes, we are! In 1986 buses were deregulated in all parts of the UK apart from London (it was exempt from this from the beginning). This means that the same problems are repeated across the whole UK. Since the Manchester campaign launched in 2018 and our Time to Take Back Our Buses! petition launched in June 2019, we have seen ‘Take Back Our Buses’ campaigns popping up all around the UK. We are trying to connect with these campaigners so we can be a united front, joining the dots to show that it’s the whole system that’s broken as we have the same problems in Manchester, in Bristol, in Yorkshire, everywhere… and that we need to work together to fight back!

There is a great report called Building a world-class bus system for Britain that shows examples of European cities, a lot from France, for instance, where buses were re-municipalised, after being privatised. Other examples are in Vienna, Zurich, Munich, in all these places, public transport works! There is a regional transport authority which has the power it needs to plan and coordinate timetables, set the fares and then you have a publicly-owned operator which runs the services. So we are always looking to Europe thinking: they know how to do it!

Photo by Neil Scott (Time to Take Back Our Buses petition hand-in at Glasgow City Chambers on 29 January 2020

Photo by Neil Scott (Time to Take Back Our Buses petition hand-in at Glasgow City Chambers on 29 January 2020)

Did you connect with the campaigners who supported this re-municipalisation in these different European cities?

Not yet, but I believe it could be really interesting! We could pursue a project with Marseille, which is Glasgow’s twin town and has re-municipalised their buses. The point we made several times to the council is the fact that you can provide a better service and reduce costs through re-municipalisation and there are many real examples to prove it! So the only reason why they are not doing it is because of the lobbyists in these private bus companies and the funding that political parties get from them.

And what can other campaigns and initiatives learn from Get Glasgow Moving and the fight you are leading in Glasgow?

If I can use Bring Back British Rail as an example, I think it acts as a warning to other countries not to privatise! We heard that in France Macron wanted to privatise SNCF [process is currently ongoing ndr], because we got a lot of French people posting and sharing our Facebook page to show what a disaster it would be for France. So we do hope that showing how bad things have become on the British railway system since privatisation would act as a warning to other places in Europe not to follow us. Then, if we are eventually able to reverse some of these privatisations, I think it that would be inspiring too!

Finally, I want to leave you with some food for thought.

When the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty visited the UK in 2018, he compared the provision of transport, especially in rural areas, as “an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity”, and that by “abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.” My friends from the Association of British Commuters used this quote in a documentary film they made about bus re-regulation across the UK, where I was also interviewed. It explains de-regulation and the damage it has caused and you should check it out!

Last year, I put together “Bus Regulation: The Musical”, which tells the story of public transport provision in Greater Manchester and makes the case for re-regulating the buses. I wanted to make this musical because I felt there was conflict between my activism and my art, and this seemed like a good way to synthesise these two aspects – using my creative skills to make the case for the campaign. It’s a family friendly format that is easy to watch and at the end you can’t help but think: “Yeah we need to re-regulate buses! It makes perfect sense!”

Find out more about Get Glasgow Moving here: www.getglasgowmoving.org

Find out more about Ellie Harrison and The Glasgow Effect here: www.ellieharrison.com