It’s easy to talk about a national bus strategy, but it won’t be easy to get different government departments and stakeholders on board

Buses minister Nus Ghani came in for some criticism for saying she was in favour of a national bus strategy “at the right point” but I think that is unfair

 

Suddenly everybody – operators, MPs, pressure groups – is calling for the introduction of a national bus strategy. It is this month’s flavour.

As a matter of fact, I share that enthusiasm but just as Brexit can mean one thing to some people and something totally different to somebody else, so we need to be clear what exactly is meant by a national bus strategy.

Actually, we ought to take one step back and decide what it is we want to achieve that the bus can help deliver, and then develop a strategy to realise that. I suggest there are three broad government objectives that the bus can help with.

The first is to aid social cohesion, by providing means to get people to their doctor, to the post office or to the local cinema, and ensuring people who would otherwise be socially isolated are not left high and dry.

The second is to help the government’s environmental objectives, particularly cutting air pollution and carbon emissions.

The third is to help economic development, by enabling people to get to work, and helping to tackle congestion through encouraging modal shift away from the private motor car.

Naturally, these objectives can only be delivered if the number of passengers using the bus can be increased, so any strategy should seek to help deliver the objectives in a way that achieves increased usage.

The Transport Select Committee has recently been taking evidence as part of its inquiry into the “health of the bus market”. The remit it has set out contains no surprises. It refers to the “effectiveness and ambition of the Department for Transport’s policies on buses” and “the way bus companies are dealing with congestion”.

Right from the outset we run into a procedural problem. A select committee is a shadow for just one department, in this case transport. There are, I think, only two committees that can wander freely across the landscape of government. One is the Public Accounts Committee, the other the Environmental Audit Committee.

So the transport committee will examine what the DfT is doing. But they cannot dig deeply into, say, the Treasury’s taxation policies or the parking policies of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), even if what those departments do is crucial to bus policy. They could ask a minister from another department to give evidence but it would normally be frowned upon and may well be met with a refusal.

It is far from unusual for one department to actively stymie another. Here are some examples from my time in government in the coalition years.

The DfT was following a policy of encouraging sustainable transport in our towns by promoting bus use, cycling and walking and discouraging the car. But CLG, as it then was, under Eric Pickles was trying to drive through free parking for motorists and leaning on councils to go easy on motorists who abused bus lanes.

The DfT was encouraging children to use the bus to get to school, while the Department for Education under Michael Gove was allowing free schools to set up anywhere, even near motorway junctions with not a bus in sight.

The DfT was using a relatively sophisticated assessment process to decide which roads should be built and ruling out those which should not, but one day George Osborne rang up and demanded a list of all road schemes that were in any way developed and announced the lot in the Budget a fortnight later.

These differences, it can be seen, were not differences between the coalition parties but between departments. We can state therefore with reasonable confidence that similar departmental sharp edges will be in existence today as well.

Yet to deliver a meaningful national bus strategy will require input and co-operation from a number of departments across government, not just the DfT.

I was interested in the evidence given by the buses minister Nusrat Ghani last month and noted with wry amusement how she could not quite say what she wanted because it would have strayed into the responsibility of other departments, something ministers are strongly discouraged from doing, and if they do it must be simply to relay existing policy. Speculating about changes somewhere else in government is a ministerial red line. We have all been there, Nus.

Asked about a national bus strategy, she replied:

“We have to be quite open and say that…there are other departments that also have a key role because they hold either funding or the networks to make those systems work – local government, Department for Education and the Department of Health.”

Later she added:

“I would like the opportunity at some point to work with all the different government departments to have an understanding of all the resources that go into buses and have it far more joined up than it is at the moment.”

Good for her.

The minister came in for some criticism for saying she was in favour of a national bus strategy “at the right point” but I think that is unfair. The way I read it, she has clearly decided it is a good idea but has not yet persuaded other departments to join in. Her comments were as much a signal to others in government as they were answers to the committee.

Within government, DfT officials will need to be talking now to their counterparts in other departments to get buy-in for their ideas.

Within government, DfT officials will need to be talking now to their counterparts in other departments to get buy-in for their ideas. At some point the minister, probably under the signature of the secretary of state, will need to produce a cross-departmental policy statement which can be circulated around government and discussed at cabinet. Ideally any internal opposition will have been squared by then. It will need to be, as I would not want to leave it to Chris Grayling to win over dubious colleagues at cabinet. A ministerial statement would then follow in the Commons.

Nus comes across as a competent and well informed minister, infinitely more competent in fact than her bumbling boss. Let us wish her well in this endeavour.

So what should be in a national bus strategy to deliver the three objectives set out at top of this piece?  Here is my 10-point plan.

1. Local government finance. At the moment some funding to local authorities is ring-fenced, while much is wrapped up in the MHCLG’s revenue support grant. How this grant is put together is a complete mystery and I spent fruitless time as a minister trying to get an explanation. I am not sure frankly that the awarding department knows itself.

The element relating to buses should be identified, added to DfT streams, and ring-fenced. Yes, I know that runs against localism but the “freedom” councils have at present has translated into the freedom to cut any non-statutory services, like support for buses, in a desperate attempt to balance the books.

The overall amount allocated by government to council needs to be increased too. The bus is far and away the most heavily used form of public transport yet the bus passenger has never received the attention and co-ordination given to the rail user or the private motorist.

2. Councils should be given a statutory duty to introduce measures to reduce congestion in their areas. That will require them to encourage people onto public transport and out of their cars. It should also give them reason to look at the number of taxis and private hire vehicles running round their streets empty. It may even cause them to look at restricted delivery times for white vans.

3. The powers available to the mayor in London to deal with traffic management offences should be rolled out across the country, including an upgrading of the penalties so they are closer to those which appertain in London.

4. Councils should be free to introduce workplace charging schemes such as exists in Nottingham without the requirement for clearance from government.

5. It is clear that police enforcement of parking offences or minor moving traffic offences is simply not happening, and those few local authorities that still rely on the police should be told that the police are no longer going to enforce these matters, so forcing them to move to civilian enforcement.

6. Bus Service Operators Grant should be recast to reflect the journeys made rather than the fuel used, thereby rewarding the move to electric and other low emission vehicles, and helping to tackle air pollution.

7. The ludicrous and wasteful freeze on fuel duty should be ended. It has cost the Treasury billions, money that could have been used to effect a real move to sustainable transport.

8. All buses need to be able to take contactless payments within two years. This may require government help to bring small operators within scope. Furthermore, we should be aiming for a system where people tap in and tap out, or where some other means is used to identify the correct fare for the journey without the driver having to take the fare. That would be popular with the public, and freeing up the driver would speed journey times and so reduce operating costs. If it can work on the tube in London, why can it not work on the bus in Leamington Spa?

The payment made should work even when people move from one vehicle to another. In Manchester, you can go from a bus to a tram to another bus to a train, and it will work out the correct fare for the journey. This is the holy grail for those of us who for years were promoting the door-to-door journey, and it should become universal.

9. Planning guidance needs to change to give much greater weight to public transport connections, so we do not end up with isolated developments where everyone is dependent on the car.

10. Hospitals need to be given a duty to ensure there are ways of patients getting to their premises that do not force people often on low incomes to have to use expensive taxis to travel miles, just because some health reorganisation has moved a service 20 miles to the east. At the moment they wash their hands of the transport implications. Washing hands, while generally a good idea for hospitals, is entirely inappropriate here.

Will it happen? Well it will need a major shift from departments other than the DfT so much will depend on the internal politics within government.

One essential element will be ambition. It needs to be there in spades. I hope it is, though my reading of both government and indeed the Confederation of Passenger Transport is that they lack the radical edge necessary to deliver this. I hope I am wrong.

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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