How vital funding is supporting buses on Liz Truss’s home turf
A little heralded decision to extend Bus Recovery Grant funding will make a huge difference to local communities.
In Liz Truss’s South West Norfolk constituency, Konectbus’s route 11 provides an hourly service carrying shoppers, commuters and families between Swaffham, surrounding villages and the market town of Dereham.
The route, run by Go-Ahead Group, calls at seven supermarkets, three schools and scores of local businesses. Crucial to local communities, it’s partly tendered by Norfolk County Council.
It’s one of many bus services that struggled during Covid – but with the help of recovery funding from central Government, Go-Ahead has been able to retime connections to enable links to Norwich and to re-route it to serve a big centre of employment, the Cranswick sausage factory in Watton.
In a little heralded announcement on August 19, the Department for Transport announced it was extending a nationwide COVID-19 funding scheme – the Bus Recovery Grant - for a further six months, providing an extra £130 million for local bus services across the country.
To some, it may seem counter intuitive that pandemic funding is still needed, given that lockdowns seem an increasingly distant memory – but this was a vital decision by the DfT which will make a marked difference.
Outside London, bus patronage levels have been gradually building back, but are still only at about 85% of pre-pandemic levels. Companies like Go-Ahead are promoting services hard to encourage passengers back – in September, for example, there will be scores of local offers as part of the industry’s Catch The Bus Month.
The reality, though, is that a drop of 10% to 15% in passenger numbers since 2019 means that many routes, both rural and urban, which were previously break-even or thinly profitable are now difficult to sustain and need support or adjustment.
Why aren’t as many people travelling? For a number of reasons. Older people sometimes remain wary of crowded spaces. Office workers are working from home more often. A lot of people shopped online during lockdown and are making fewer trips into town to stock up. Conversely, though, leisure traffic has bounced back strongly and the sunny summer weather has proven a boost for tourist areas.
When there is evidence of a permanent shift in demand, bus companies across Britain have been restructuring networks. In some cases, different sized buses can be deployed. In others, as with route 11 in Norfolk, frequencies and routes can be adjusted to suit customers’ habits. From time to time, routes need to be removed completely to redeploy buses and drivers to where they are most needed.
Looking ahead, there are reasons to be cheerful about buses. Modal shift from private cars to public transport is a reality – and public attitudes are shifting. Fewer young people own cars. In towns, bus lanes, bus priority schemes and measures to restrict uncontrolled car use are encouraging people towards walking, cycling and public transport. Lord Deben’s Climate Change Committee calculates that unless car mileage is reduced by 17% by 2050, it will be impossible for Britain to hit net zero.
Buses can address the cost of living crisis, too. As fuel prices have soared, analysis by Go-Ahead suggests that switching from a car to a bus on popular commuter routes can typically lead to a saving of £3,000 per annum – once petrol, insurance, parking, maintenance and depreciation of a car are factored in.
A little more time, and patience, is needed to build back – or to replace – demand lost to the pandemic. And the extension of BRG funding provides that. Without it, much of the money spent by the Government keeping routes alive over the last two years would have been wasted.
Should she become Prime Minister, it is to be hoped that Liz Truss will recognise the importance of buses – not just to congested towns and cities but to communities, often Conservative ones, such as the slice of East Anglia she represents.
She would be welcome aboard route 11 any time to see an example of partnership between the private sector, a local authority and national government. And I hope that many other MPs, too, will take a local bus in September to show their support for Catch The Bus Month.
Martin Dean is Managing Director, Regional Bus, at The Go-Ahead Group
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.