Matt Gamble and Neil Davies of Atkins consider how England can deliver BSIPs, Enhanced Partnerships and ZEBRAs

The welcome announcement of an extension of the Bus Recovery Grant buys some much-needed breathing space for buses

Since the original commitments and ambitions outlined in the Department for Transport’s Bus Back Better strategy, published in March 2021, there have been well-publicised reports of reductions in the availability of funding. The £3bn promised to help level up bus services in England to London standards has shrunk to just £1.2bn to improve bus services over the next three years.

Analysis on submitted Bus Service Improvement Plans by the Confederation of Passenger Transport published in November 2021 estimated that some £7.2bn would be required to fund BSIP proposals. This estimate follows an evaluation of 40 areas that account for 70% of England’s bus journeys outside London. They also estimate that the £7.2bn rises to approximately £9bn across all local transport authorities.

According to CPT estimates, the £1.2bn available is around 13% of the £9bn that local transport authorities and their consultants estimate is required to ‘bus back better’. And we understand that around 50% of local transport authorities may receive no funding at all.

So, what can beleaguered local transport authorities and bus operators do to mitigate the impact of these reports?

Re-group, re-imagine and re-prioritise

Three areas will exercise the minds of local transport authority officers in England over the coming weeks and months – the implications of the long-awaited clarity on the Bus Recovery Grant; the recent communication from DfT on concessionary travel reimbursement; and finally, implementing those Enhanced Partnerships – with or without funding from Bus Back Better.

Faced with what looks like a ‘new normal’ of significantly fewer passengers to ride on buses, fewer staff to drive and maintain those buses (and inflationary pressures on costs), there is an urgent need to re-group and plan reduced bus services to fit

The welcome announcement of an extension of the BRG buys some much-needed breathing space. However, the hard stop at the end of September 2022 focuses attention on the juxtaposition between funding for new initiatives and the need for the sector to wean itself off this source of funding. Faced with what looks like a ‘new normal’ of significantly fewer passengers to ride on buses, fewer staff to drive and maintain those buses (and inflationary pressures on costs), there is an urgent need to re-group and plan reduced bus services to fit. The six months’ grace that the BRG extension buys is, in reality, two months if new service tenders need to be designed. Now, more than ever, intense local knowledge needs to be applied if the changes are to avoid a further decline in patronage.

Allied to this, LTAs should look to re-imagine their concessionary travel schemes in the light of the diminishing taper of reimbursement against pre-Covid levels announced by DfT in November 2021, with reimbursements due to fall to 65% of pre-Covid values by February 2023. The recent clarification by DfT does little to help LTA officers navigate the pressure to reduce spending in this area. There is also a risk that making the savings will lead to further cuts, particularly in those rural and small-town bus services disproportionately reliant on concessionary passengers. It will be difficult to justify to a section 151 officer why 100% of pre-Covid reimbursements should continue to be paid, considering this taper, and authorities should engage with operators on the implications of these reductions.

At the very least, LTAs need to recognise that the rigid application of the taper could leave bus operators ‘worse off’, and they must consider whether they should allow the reimbursement to rise above the taper value in line with out-turn patronage.

On BSIPs, whilst frustrating to many, the DfT’s announcement of the relaxation of the deadline for completing Enhanced Partnerships does provide some opportunities. LTAs could re-prioritise activities, develop their governance approach, consider their and their partners’ delivery priorities, and how they could leverage other funding pots before the EP process starts in earnest.

Another area where LTAs could exert effort in the interim concerns defining monitoring against targets specified in their BSIPs. Many have committed to collating data on patronage, journey times, reliability, and customer satisfaction. Where they do not already hold data, collection for the baseline is becoming increasingly important.

However, many authorities will have limited access to data or existing resource to support any analysis. So, they could use the delays to develop a cost-effective means of measuring outcomes against these targets. For instance, by considering using Bus Open Data Service in the fullness of time, using operators’ existing returns to DfT, recognising the need to establish confidentiality agreements where required, where they are not already in place. Faced with the withdrawal of BRG and other pressures on the operating industry, authorities may want to consider how they explain any reductions rather than the hoped-for rise in patronage, should service cuts be necessary.

In the light of all the above it’s hard to remain positive, but many LTAs were enthusiastic about the provision of bus priority in their BSIPs. Many have a desire to extract funding from outside the National Bus Strategy. We all know that designing, consulting on, and getting political approval for priority schemes is challenging. Notwithstanding a few exceptions, most authorities will have developed their BSIP schemes from a standing start. So, it seems prudent – if authorities can identify funding – to start the design and consultation processes so that they can face bidding opportunities with more confidence and certainty as and when they arise.

Finally, in relation to Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas, the delay provides a window for LTAs to continue discussions with operators on potential bidding opportunities and explore whether zero-emission buses might unlock other opportunities that support the delivery of BSIP objectives like making improvements to city centre access.

Creating a level playing field

Besides the Bus Back Better strategy, we must remain cognisant of the Levelling Up White Paper. One of the 12 missions stated was the ambition to ensure that public transport is brought up to London standards. The white paper included the potential devolution of the Bus Service Operators Grant to combined authorities and LTAs. To do this successfully, we must take local nuances into account.

For many rural communities, the car remains the only currently reliable mode of transport. We must ensure that bus routes and timetables cater to the needs of these communities, in addition to the needs of those living in more urban settings.

To support this, we will need to ensure that investments are inclusive of all communities and work across all settings. Only through doing so can we ensure we level up successfully, do not exacerbate inequality in society and support the delivery of our Net Zero ambition.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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