The long-awaited strategy has some good points for the future of buses in England, but also some naivety and a lack of understanding

Boris Johnson launched the Bus Back Better strategy in Coventry

The publication of Bus Back Better – the National Bus Strategy for England – has raised the profile of buses in the media and suggests a step-change in the quantity and quality of services, but it fails to provide insight into how best to achieve this. A sum of £3bn is heralded to secure change but it isn’t clear how. Instead, local authorities have the buck passed to them.

Avoiding the issue

Back in July I predicted what the strategy would look like: platitudes about how useful buses are, how people should be encouraged to use them more, alternative fuels and debate on how services are provided. We have all of these but not some of the core ingredients of a comprehensive strategy. On traffic congestion, a strong theme is bus priority measures for which the strategy envisages hundreds of miles of new bus lanes. However, dealing with the root causes of traffic congestion and local pollution are notable by their absence and the document conveniently avoids any hint of equitable pricing for all road users or even the inappropriate emission controls that government wants enacted currently.

Essentially the strategy says virtually nothing about cars at all, but this is the context in which buses operate and needs to be addressed before we start to improve bus services. Even electric cars won’t be the solution because they substitute cars for cars and continue to take up disproportionate
road space.

Looking in more detail and you start to unzip the aspirations. Introducing bus lanes isn’t straightforward otherwise they would be in place already. Where they are needed most is usually where they are hardest to accommodate generally because there isn’t enough space for everyone. Then there are procedures: design, modelling to test the traffic impacts, statutory consultation for Traffic Regulation Orders and so on. The strategy looks forward optimistically to some quick measures. If on-street parking has to be taken out to make space then the difficulties really start with disquiet which prompts local politicians to get involved, usually but misguidedly in favour of those who can only image a world in which car use predominates. By the time procedures have been followed, evidence has been gathered, committees and public meetings have been held and decisions made, the funding window has evaporated. It is a fallacy that schemes are waiting around until funding becomes available because highway authorities do not have the resources to design and approve schemes to be ‘shovel-ready’, to use a popular government expression.

Then we have the capacity of local authorities. The strategy is big on partnerships with the full involvement of councils and bus operators. Despite many voluntary partnerships having delivered improvements across the country, the idea is postulated as if it were new. The problem is that successive rounds of austerity have destroyed much of the knowledge and experience of councils with mass redundancies. It will be interesting to see how authorities will deliver change when most of them don’t have sufficient staff to write the plan in the limited time available. It’s not about ability or intent, it’s about allowing reasonable time for planning and implementation, not cutting corners or working staff into the ground. We know from the temporary Covid-19 measures that quick delivery doesn’t necessarily produce good results.

Injection of cash

The massive slug of funding is certainly welcome. However, looking at this more closely, we see that 4,000 new non-diesel buses will be supported. Funds will only be provided for UK-built buses though, this jingoism excluding China which has the greatest experience of electric buses. If the cost difference between a conventional bus and a new fuel bus is £250,000, then the new buses use up a third of the budget. This provides lots of shiny new buses and may help to sidestep the air quality problem in which highway authorities are forced to penalise vehicle users based on emissions (such as older buses) but not include cars for fear of upsetting anyone. This exposes the conflicting policies that support car use on the one hand, further evidenced by the saga of the fuel duty escalator and road building on a vast scale and wanting to promote passenger transport. Trying to reconcile these two accounts for many of problems we have today. If government is serious about making passenger transport a priority, it needs to take a step back and present proposals for managing traffic in a rational and non-hysterical way. Sadly we don’t see any hint of it in the bus strategy. The air quality problem (and statutory responses to deal with it) is not about what is emitted by buses but is very much about what is emitted by car journeys, many of which don’t need to be undertaken in the first place.

Revenue support remains an elusive theme. Providing more intensive services and extending operating hours into the evenings and Sundays would be really good if there was clarity about funding. Capital spend (shiny things and infrastructure) is far more agreeable than the gritty realism of paying for services. The biggest share of the funding, if indeed it is new funding, should go on operating more services but we all know what the government thinks about subsidy. Channelling funds through local authorities escapes the state aid problem but creates liabilities which councils are not in a position to accept. In any case, the period for which funding will be available isn’t stated, although a cynic would suggest that it is between now and the next election. The principle of the strategy seems to be that more services will attract more users, therefore the whole dynamic becomes self-enforcing and traffic congestion will go away. Oh dear. Nothing appears to have been learned from decades of policy and experience.


There are some good ideas, some of them having been around for a long time. It isn’t clear if the strategy’s creators have been on a bus outside London recently but probably not. Contactless payment is heralded as if it isn’t already widespread. Multi-operator and multi-modal ticketing is a great idea but instead of saying that it should be universal and leaving it to others to get on with it, perhaps government should offer some guidance. It won’t but then councils and operators have been getting the technology together for many years but haven’t yet achieved the nirvana, largely due to other reasons including unhelpful rules about cooperation and cartels. Demand-responsive services are included, although significant progress has been made in some areas some telling schemes have come and gone. The whole issue of coordinating transport in rural areas is raised as if no-one has thought about it over the last few decades. Bus rapid transit ‘could be a game-changer’ but seems limited to ‘up to five schemes’ in unspecified locations – why not more? The strategy is full of bright ideas but precious little help for practical delivery.

We also need to remember that this strategy is for England; other parts of the UK continue to do things differently under devolved administrations. It isn’t clear what happens at the borders and whether or not Scotland and Wales will be required to adopt similar, complementary or totally different budgets and initiatives.

New plans

Setting aside wider traffic problems and car-dependency, the strategy could be much improved by setting out how changes will be made. It isn’t just a case of passing it all to local authorities to sort out and hoping they will all achieve great things just because thegovernment has a vision. The Local Bus Service Improvement Plans should refine the strategy at a more local level but need some help – how about changing the archaic rules about Traffic Regulation Orders to make them quicker and less cumbersome to deal with? What about coordinating Enhanced Partnerships across geographical areas? It might have been helpful to generate a LBSIP pro-forma (with some flexibility) to avoid every highway authority having to start from scratch. Expecting change in the next year or two completely misunderstands how bus services are provided, partnerships or not. Surely rationalising fares should be managed from above for consistency and to explain how revenue deficits will be covered.

There are a few sparks though. A Bus Centre of Excellence is promising given that there are many equivalents in other sectors. This might help to explain where all the additional bus drivers will come from. A Bus Passenger Charter seems to be more window-dressing, given that most bus users are satisfied. Talking of people, the strategy perpetuates in pictures what many people think buses are about – new buses. This gives completely the wrong emphasis because it should be about what bus services achieve, not what buses themselves look like. Tying in the strategy with wider objectives about post-Covid working patterns, including buses more forcibly in large development proposals, understanding the relationships between land use and transport, social equity, sorting out air quality in a coherent way, climate change (not just emissions), sustainability and so on. Another good idea is a national campaign to promote bus use which in part will have to expend effort on explaining why this is the complete opposite of government advice during the pandemic.

The overall vision is one that can be widely supported but without any effort to put buses into context will ensure that the benefits are sub-optimal, that processes become more adversarial and ineffective and many benefits are missed by a mile. DfT likes scoring, sifting and targets so perhaps we could consider the strategy in this way: overall thrust 50%, understanding the issues 50%, helping delivery 30%, presentation 40% and enabling change 50%, scoring just enough to see some new buses but no legacy of step-change or leadership. Everyone supports the vision but we need more on how to achieve it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (, Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

This article appears alongside further coverage in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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