Baroness Vere remarks on ‘incredible’ scale of emergency funding and says national bus strategy will target non-users as well as existing ones

Baroness Vere (centre), pictured during a visit to York in September

Transport minister Baroness Vere offered an insight into her current thinking at an online event organised by Transport Focus this month, The transport user Covid debate.

Vere began by talking about the emergency funding that the government has provided to public transport operators to make up for lost passenger revenue during the pandemic.

“I’m spending money like water at the moment,” she lamented. “It’s grim but it’s good – because it’s got to be done, right?

Vere said that the extra support for buses in England outside London – which has already exceeded £850m and is rising at a rate of £27.3m a week – will “probably end up maybe around £1bn … it’s an incredible amount of money”. She pointed out that light rail operators outside of London had meanwhile received £160m.

Turning her attention to London, she said: “We’ve actually had to provide Transport for London £3bn to keep their show on the road this financial year, which is an extraordinary amount. And I have to be honest, as a condition of that £3bn the mayor has to pay for free transport for the under 18s.

“I’m not entirely sure why we could ask the national taxpayer to pay for free travel for my 16-year-old. I mean, she can afford her own bus fare.”

Vere observed that train operators had been hardest hit in terms of the number of people who have stopped using their services. “They still ride the buses somewhat, but they’re not riding the trains and I think there’s probably all sorts of factors involved in that,” she said.

“I think as we come out of this pandemic period we’re going to have to have different ways of encouraging different people back onto different networks and I think that segmentation is going to be really, really important.”

We’ve got to recover the industry and then we’ve got to look for it’s great and glorious future

Moving on from “the grim stuff”, Vere highlighted some of the positive developments at the Department for Transport, such as the forthcoming national bus strategy – which is now expected next spring.

“There’s a huge incentive for us to reform buses and I think an opportunity,” she said. “What I have found over the period of the pandemic is that relations between local authorities and bus operators have improved which is very good. And I think we want to be able to use that as a catalyst for how we can develop better partnership working going forward.”

Vere spoke of the challenge of trying to formulate a strategy for the future of the bus industry during uncertain times.

“It’s really difficult at the moment because we’ve got very shifting sands,” she said. “And so we’ve got two elements at the moment; we’ve got to recover the industry and then we’ve got to look for it’s great and glorious future in an environment where where you’re not entirely sure of the ground that you’re standing on. So it’s made our lives harder but we absolutely recognise that we have to do it.”

Vere said the national bus strategy had even occupied her thoughts during her summer holiday and she is determined it will focus on non-users as well as existing users: “I went to Athens… there was no-one there, it was very depressing. But I was thinking about the bus strategy by the pool, as you do, and I was really, really clear and I emailed back the officials and set out the five strands I wanted to talk about in terms of modernising different bits of it. I said at the absolute heart of it there are two things: there is the passenger and there is ‘not a passenger yet’ – but we want them to be a passenger.

“So that’s what you’re going to see in the bus strategy. Passenger at its heart, and then how we get the people who don’t ride with our buses onto our buses, because that’s how we’re going to get growth. And I think we’re going to have to do some segmentation … get the youngsters on early – once a bus rider, I think always a bus rider. How are we going to get these people on? That will be the big focus for me.”

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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