Funding for bus services must reflect our environmental and social priorities
The government must work closely with local authorities to attract people back onto buses.
First promised in 2019, the government’s bus strategy is long overdue but very welcome. Since then, the crisis in our bus services has worsened because for the last year the government has actively discouraged bus travel, seen as unsafe in the pandemic. This came on top of decades of decline where there has been no strategy for bus services, left to the power of the market.
In the 1980s the deregulation of bus services outside London created chaotic and unsatisfactory services. Bus companies, rather than bus passengers, were king. It was a free market approach, with a backstop role for local authorities who were expected to pick up the tab for subsidising socially necessary services. As their funding was squeezed most local authorities could no longer afford such subsidies. But despite declining bus patronage, over 50% of public transport journeys are made by bus: that’s 4.4 billion journeys a year. Reforming our bus service is essential and urgent part of our response to the climate crisis.
I agree with many proposals in the Strategy, notably a U-turn on the free market approach to buses. I argued for some of the principles myself in the Lords’ debates on the Bus Services Act 2017. Lower fares, daily price caps, integrated and contactless ticketing across different transport modes, better disabled access, are all very welcome. So too are commitments to a target to end the sale of new diesel buses and an enhanced role for local authorities in planning services.
Enhanced partnerships and franchising are great but financially stressed local authorities will put fair funding top of their list
The problem is that as with many government announcements, this came with an impressive price tag but no detail on exactly how this money will be spent. The announcement comes immediately after the Budget talked of abolishing Air Passenger Duty and a freeze on fuel duty. Both made a mockery of our climate change commitments. Well over a year ago the government promised to fund 800 British built zero emission buses, but there’s no sign of progress on that yet.
The government will consult on a date for the end of sales of new diesel buses: the well-respected Campaign for Better Transport suggests 2025. I hope to see the government sign up to this realistic but ambitious target.
Local authorities are expected to provide bus service improvement plans by October. The key role for councils in this vital local service is welcome but there are many unanswered questions. Prior to the pandemic there was a £700 million funding gap on concessionary fares, which must be closed. The government’s funding streams for bus services are confused, outdated and inadequate. None of them reflect distance travelled or incentivise greener vehicles.
Since the start of the pandemic, government interim support for bus services has remained on an emergency footing. So funding needs urgent reform, reflecting environmental and social priorities.
Passengers put reliability at the top of their requirements. They want better information, simpler ticketing, and cheaper fares. To attract people back onto buses, the government must work much more closely with local authorities. Enhanced partnerships and franchising are great but financially stressed local authorities will put fair funding top of their list if they are to rise to the challenge.
The government’s aim is to revolutionise bus services. The good news is that although reform is urgent, it is relatively easy to reform bus services. A real change could be made within a year or so, whereas it takes a decade or more to build a railway.
Baroness Randerson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and Lords spokesperson for Transport.
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