The government must invest more to deliver on its vision for buses or face the collapse of services that play a vital role in their communities, argues Kamal Panchal from the Local Government Association.
I’m writing this following the recent government announcement awarding £1.1 billion in funding to 31 English counties, city regions and unitary authorities to support their Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIP).
The government asked every local transport authority to provide a BSIP when the National Bus Strategy was launched in March 2021.
Back then, councils welcomed the strategy and a promised £3 billion of funding as recognition of the importance of buses for millions of people and the role buses can play in transport decarbonisation.
Despite tight timescales and concern that £3 billion was not enough to match the government’s ambition, councils responded enthusiastically and produced outline plans in partnership with operators.
Too many areas still missing out
The recent funding announcement is great news for the communities set to benefit.
However, more than half of local authority areas and over a third of the country’s population are missing out, meaning the bus strategy cannot be truly called national.
Many places, both urban and rural, will struggle to maintain existing services let alone invest in measures to grow.
In such areas, the risk is that services will be fragmented and the bus network will be determined almost entirely on commercial viability – a position that the government had attempted to move away from in its strategy.
A missed opportunity to support low-income households
The cost-of-living crisis has also risen up the agenda in recent months, forcing the government into major new policy interventions on fuel, energy and council tax.
In this context, not providing enough bus funding is a lost opportunity to support low-income households.
Within the 20% of the population that earns the lowest income, 45% of households have no access to a car.
People without access to a car make four times as many bus journeys than those who do have car access.
Living up to the £3 billion commitment to improve local bus services everywhere would’ve provided an instant, cost-effective way of helping mainly lower income households withstand the cost-of-living squeeze.
In comparison, the fuel duty cut offers those households no help, and is weighted towards those on higher incomes.
Other countries have gone further and faster.
Germany is providing €9 monthly travel cards for three months, New Zealand has cut public transport fares in half for three months, and Ireland reduced all fares by 20%, and 50% for young adults under 24.
A transformative vision...
To repeat its own words from its strategy, the government said: “Buses are the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to improve transport. Building a new railway or road takes years, if not decades.
“Better bus services can be delivered in months. Experience shows that relatively small sums of money, by the standards of transport spending, can deliver significant benefits.”
However, priorities are measured in budgets not announcements. The fuel duty cut is likely to cost the Treasury £2.4 billion this year alone, dwarfing the £1.1 billion bus funding over three years.
The government has rightly praised Cornwall’s reduced fares scheme, where passes for unlimited bus travel across the county will cost just £5 per day.
But this has required ongoing funding for Cornwall – funding that for more than half of authorities will be zero.
...not matched by investment
The government deserves credit for the emergency funding for bus services during the pandemic and the ongoing assistance with recovery, including the recent extension following the Omicron variant.
Councils have welcomed this support and it has prevented the collapse of many bus services.
However, the National Bus Strategy set out a vision and plan for growth across the country for public transport to reach its potential.
Twelve months on, the recent funding announcements have left large parts of the country that won funding disappointed and unable to fulfil the plans set out in their BSIP.
Meanwhile, those areas who received nothing will worry about how long the collapse of bus services can be delayed.
This article represents the views of the author, and not necessarily of his employer.