The National Bus Strategy will fail without greater funding and support
The National Bus Strategy set out that local authorities should collaborate with local bus firms (Alamy)
Buses are by far Britain’s most popular mode of public transport. They are particularly important to the young, old, and disadvantaged in our society. Yet our buses punch far below their weight in the public imagination and garner far less love and attention than they deserve.
My cross-party colleagues and I on the Transport Committee recently documented the highs and lows of England’s bus services in our report on the government’s 2021 National Bus Strategy.
To the Department for Transport’s credit, the strategy contained strong, ambitious ideas to revitalise the sector. Alas the funding to implement it was neither sufficient nor consistent enough to fully realise its bold ambitions.
So what was the plan? Local authorities outside London were asked to collaborate with bus firms in their patch to develop improvement plans. They could then bid for shares of a £1.1bn fund that would bring their ideas to life, with schemes such as new dedicated bus lanes, “demand responsive” services in rural areas, smart ticketing and cashless payments.
The thinking was: reverse the decline in bus ridership and the downward spiral of decreasing revenue that has led some operators to cut services, leading to even fewer people choosing the bus over their car. “If you build it, they will come back,” if you like.
My committee heard there are green shoots of success in parts of the country where bids were granted, and widespread confidence that improvements will follow – albeit after a long wait. Combined with the government’s six-month £2 cap on fares, patronage in some areas has started to recover after the scars inflicted by the pandemic.
But for all the local authorities who poured time and resources into developing bids that were rejected, more than half of those that applied, there was palpable disappointment.
“Without a more equitable distribution of funding across the country, ministers risk creating a two-tier system”
Quite simply, more funding will be needed to make all the ambitions set out in the strategy a reality and to support more councils to enact their improvement plans. Without a more equitable distribution of funding across the country, ministers risk creating a two-tier system. A situation could develop where buses in one city would be far better than those in neighbouring towns. We also heard that larger, well-resourced councils were more likely to have a winning bid, leaving smaller ones feeling outgunned.
Elsewhere the debate around the hows and whens of getting petrol and diesel vehicles off the United Kingdom’s roads rumbles on, with different sides of the argument highlighting the urgent need to cut emissions balanced against the desire to avoid levelling the financial burden on the public.
The debate is typically framed around car ownership, building more charging infrastructure and introducing alternative fuels. Often conspicuous by its absence in the debate is the role of local bus services.
Our report argues that it is crucial we don’t take our foot off the pedal for replacing the country’s mostly diesel fleet with battery or hydrogen-powered models. Progress has been glacial, however. As of April 2022, only four per cent of Britain’s buses were battery or hydrogen powered. The government has announced £525m of funding to support the transition to zero-emission buses (ZEBs) and build necessary charging infrastructure. It also committed to getting 4,000 ZEBs in operation by the end of this Parliament. However, as of December, only 87 of these buses were on the road.
To decarbonise, alongside replacing the buses, we also need to get more people onto buses and out of their cars whenever they need to visit the GP or go to the shops. The answer is levelling up and restoring people’s faith in buses, period.
Iain Stewart is Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South and chair of the Transport Select Committee
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