Ministers have shown imagination and commitment in producing the National Bus Strategy, but its lofty ambitions risk falling flat

The National Bus Strategy was launched by the prime minister in March 2021

There may have been champagne corks popping when the government finally committed to introduce a National Bus Strategy for England, something the Campaign for Better Transport and others had been pressing hard for.

It all seemed to good to be true. We were promised a transformation in services, new routes where there were none, cheaper fares, and a modern greener bus fleet.

The government adopted a pro-bus policy like none we had seen before in living memory. We even had the prime minister, of course formerly mayor of London, talking fondly about making models of buses, even if nobody quite believed him and thought it more likely he was spending his time with other sorts of models.

£5bn was set aside for this transformation, and even if the cycling lobby managed to divert two-fifths of that, that still left a sizeable £3bn chunk. Local transport bodies enthusiastically worked up plans that would qualify them for some money from this new pot of gold, and all 79 accordingly produced a Bus Service Improvement Plan within the tight timescale demanded by the government.

Instead of record growth, we are now in danger of record decline, with a tsunami of cuts to services fast approaching

Yet instead of record growth, we are now in danger of record decline, with a tsunami of cuts to services fast approaching. The champagne has well and truly gone flat, lying morosely in its glass as a symbol of what might have been.

So what went wrong and what can be done now to salvage the situation?

Most obviously, the arrival of Covid inevitably blew many government initiatives, including bus policy, off course. To be fair to the government, they were commendably quick to put in place emergency support for the bus sector (though not the coach industry), support which is still continuing.

But the public health messaging adopted, while well intentioned, was unfair and unhelpful to bus and train operators. Remember those dreadful Dracula-style “Coronavirus Takes The Bus/Train” posters issued by the Cabinet Office?

The consequence, as Jeff Counsell, the managing director of the highly-regarded independent operator Trentbarton has put it, has been that “buses were framed by the media as plague-ridden boxes to be ridden only by Derry-booted construction folk or NHS workers on their way home from a long night shift.”

Unhelpful clearly, but also unfair because operators have striven with success to keep their vehicles clean and safe. Yet while people are free to mingle in pubs and clubs, jostle at the bar, and dance and snog in nightclubs, in England at least, passengers on buses and trains are reminded every 10 minutes that “you must wear a face covering … always follow the latest government advice.”

That government advice has been driven to a degree by politics rather than health. It should be obvious to all that a pub setting where people mill around in close proximity is more of a health risk than a public transport vehicle where people sit down and then do not move for the duration of their journey. But the government dares not take on the hospitality sector unless it absolutely has to. It has no such qualms about taking on the public transport sector.

Moreover, a recent study from University College London, and reported prominently a few days ago in the Daily Mail, produced evidence to show that a person was more than twice as likely to catch Covid by going shopping as opposed to travelling by tube, itself the form of transport regarded as most risky by the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus – or actually probably not on it.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and Transport for London have been particularly robust in requiring mask wearing, even when this was not a national requirement. Again, I am sure this was well-intentioned and health experts generally support the view that mask wearing has limited the opportunity for the virus to spread.

But the mayor is wrong to conclude that the enforcement of mandatory mask wearing helps give confidence to people to use the bus or tube. Rather it reinforces the unfounded fear that public transport is inherently unsafe, and by definition more of a health risk than popping down to the supermarket or into the pub for a quick pint or two – the exact opposite of the truth.

The upshot of all this is that a significant percentage of the population who were using buses and trains before the pandemic are no longer doing so. Even before the latest variant struck, passenger levels had plateaued at around 80%, and of course that figure has dropped sharply since.

Some of the lost passengers may now be home working rather than commuting, but others have switched to the private car, with traffic levels now back to, or above, pre-pandemic levels. And congestion in urban areas is calculated to cost the economy £11bn a year.

Meanwhile, the amount of money available to invest in delivering the National Bus Strategy has shrunk and shrunk. The £5bn became £3bn, then that pot was used to provide the emergency short-term funding to keep routes running, a situation that looks likely to further deplete the pot if emergency funding continues past its current deadline of March 31, as it needs to.

So it seem, there will be at most £1.2bn to distribute for enhancements, plus a further £200m for zero emission buses. But the 79 local transport authorities, having all been encouraged to be bold and radical, have submitted BSIPs which will cost in total at least £7bn to deliver. The Department for Transport would need £2.8bn to fund just the four biggest of the 79 BSIPs that have come in.

Clearly, there are going to be a lot of disappointed authorities, who will feel they have been marched to the top of the hill, and marched down again, even if the toxic Duke of York has not been involved.

In November, Passenger Transport, for instance, reported that through their BSIP plan, the West of England combined authority was aiming for every community with 1,000 people or more to have a minimum hourly bus service, improvements to every bus stop, and a completely zero emission fleet by 2033. Well, good luck to them.

How is the residual £1.2bn, or less if it is further raided to support emergency funding, going to be distributed? The DfT could decide to get the biggest return by investing in those big urban areas where bus services are already well established and the opportunity for growth in passenger numbers is greatest. Yet it is acutely conscious of the need to deal with those shire counties where bus services are threadbare.

The DfT, which is doing its best, told me that they intend to help all those who have submitted plans

The DfT, which is doing its best, told me that they intend to help all those who have submitted plans. This is a laudable aim but unless they can deliver a miracle with loaves and fishes, a lot of local authorities will get nothing, or the funding will be spread so thin as to make it almost meaningless.

Even those authorities who do receive something may well be left in the unwelcome position that their carefully crafted scheme becomes unviable as it holds together as a whole but does not work in bits.

It is useful that flexibility in the arrangements for notification of route changes to the traffic commissioner has been maintained, but there is a definite echo from cans being kicked down roads. The reality is that in places such as Oxfordshire, Tyne and Wear and South Yorkshire, we are already seeing cuts. And TfL is talking grimly of “managed decline” as its direction of travel.

Over the last decade, cuts have mainly come to those supported services paid for by councils, with the 80% or so of services which have been commercially run being relatively untouched. But this time we are seeing, and will see, commercial services cut too, and cash-strapped local councils simply do not have the cash to pick up the slack.

A further issue fast looming relates to the funding of concessionary fares. Councils cannot be expected to continue to pay for non-existent journeys, yet to relieve them of this burden will seriously further undermine the economics of the bus operators.

So, the picture is bleak, but all need not be lost. Here is my recipe for recovery:

  • The government is going to have to continue the emergency funding regime, probably for another six months at least. The money for this must not come from what is left of the funds set aside for the National Bus Strategy. An early announcement, ideally within the next fortnight or so, is needed to allow for some forward planning.
  • The government should maintain the payments to operators for concessionary fares, but recompense councils for the element that relates to non-existent journeys.
  • The government, especially the Treasury, must not adopt a defeatist attitude that this is the “new normal”. Rather, they should resolve to pursue policies that drive up passenger numbers.
  • As part of that, they need to change the perception that the bus is somehow unsafe in health terms. Let us see the prime minister and the chancellor on a bus, and let us see a vigorous public information campaign from the government to tell people the bus is safe to get back on. My belief is that there is a proportion of the population, maybe as high as 20%, that is waiting for that lead from government before they return to the bus.
  • We need sufficient funding and political support for measures that increase bus priority in our urban areas. As people return to their private car, we will see increased pressure to reduce the hours of, or even take out, bus lanes. Ministers must be vocal in supporting bus priority measures, not hide behind local councillors.
  • The government must recognise that they need to deploy the stick as well as the carrot. We need action to limit the use of the private car, through higher car parking charges, workplace charging schemes such as in Nottingham, and an end to the counter-productive freeze in fuel duty that has now gone on for 11 years.

Ministers have shown imagination and commitment in producing the National Bus Strategy. It would be a great shame if that now all fizzled out.

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 story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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