Buses are Britain's most frequently used form of public transport, with the latest Government data indicating that 59% of all public transport trips in Great Britain were made by bus in 2017-18, compared to 21% by rail. The Prime Minister has now committed to a £5bn boost in funding to this area, but there needs to be a coherent national framework to support this vital service line.
Following the recommendation of the House of Commons Transport Committee last year, the Department for Transport (DfT) has committed to produce a National Bus Strategy for England. For the first time, this will set out the Government's vision for local bus services and the way in which that vision will be achieved. In so doing, it will be vital that DfT find the right balance between implementing meaningful improvements for existing and potential passengers in a diverse set of operating circumstances, whilst respecting the roles and responsibilities of local transport authorities and public transport operators.
There are three compelling reasons why the UK needs to make a success of this:
― The transport sector is a significant contributor to local and global atmospheric pollution. If the UK is serious about meeting local clean air targets and national carbon targets, then improving the relative attractiveness of local bus services is arguably the quickest, cheapest and one of the most effective ways to do so.
― Regional differences in productivity are the widest they have been for a century. Strengthening economic connectivity by reducing traffic congestion will be an important part of a holistic approach to 'levelling-up' economic performance between UK regions.
― There is a need to build approximately 300,000 new homes per year for the foreseeable future to abate Britain's housing crisis. Investment in public transport is not only needed to unlock specific sites for housing development but also to improve the ability of the wider transport networks to cater for additional demand.
If the National Bus Strategy is going to contribute to the delivery of these policy aims it needs to:
― Describe how local bus services can contribute to meeting local clean air and carbon reduction targets, reducing highway congestion, and unlocking the benefits of new housing.
― Provide guidance on how investment in local bus infrastructure can increase network reliability, reduce bus journey times and enhance the passenger experience.
― Encourage greater partnerships between local authorities, developers and bus operators in delivering new services and realising the benefits of existing services.
― Provide passengers, operators and local authorities with greater certainty on the development of networks by committing to long term capital and revenue funding.
Until recently, the bus industry received relatively little political attention. That is no longer true. The combined challenges of the environment, economy, and housing mean that civic leaders need to provide substantially more support to local bus services as part of an integrated transport strategy. The trouble is that many local authorities no longer have the expertise or resources to do this. The inclusion of a framework for these stakeholders to shape their understanding of how bus services can contribute to their respective local policy objectives, will be a key part of the National Bus Strategy.
Renewed investment into infrastructure to support bus services will increase the capacity and efficiency of urban transport networks, increasing network reliability and reducing journey times. Establishing priority measures however requires trading-off the needs of some road users against others. Even those with significant experience of delivering these types of initiatives will find this hard. The Strategy should therefore seek to promote best practice with regard to traffic management and selective road priority.
A delicate balance is required between promoting the benefits of competition, and the coordination of activities and input across multiple providers and stakeholders in order to provide high quality bus journeys. For years, central government has paid very little attention to local bus services and most local authorities have lacked the funding needed to invest. The Bus Services Act 2017 provided new powers for local authorities to work with operators to make improvements, but without new resources in expertise and funding, the ability to deliver these is reduced. The Strategy should provide the ambition and funding model needed to encourage greater partnership between local authorities and bus operators, as well as with property developers to unlock the benefits of new housing.
The funding challenge
Providing passengers, operators and local authorities with greater funding certainty presents three challenges for the National Bus Strategy:
― Firstly, a review of overall funding levels is needed to determine the required resources to maximise the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of local bus services.
― Next, the balance between capital and revenue expenditure will need to be considered. Whilst most types of expenditure on local bus services provide excellent value for money, capital expenditure typically generates higher Benefit-Cost ratios. Revenue expenditure tends to be targeted at equity concerns, for example concessionary travel and supported services. The Strategy should simultaneously examine whether specific funds, in particular the Bus Service Operators Grant, could be more sharply focussed to better reflect current policy aims.
― Finally, the conditions needed to attract new capital - in particular, new funding to support the 'greening' of the vehicle fleet, will need to be strengthened. There is significant pressure on the sector to accelerate the take-up of zero-emission vehicles. The costs of doing so are concentrated with operators but the benefits are more dispersed, therefore the sector needs support regarding the management of associated risks and rewards of large scale investment in these new, cleaner vehicles.
If the National Bus Strategy for England reflects the points above, it has the potential to drive better, collaborative solutions to wider local transport concerns while boosting public and private sector confidence in making long term investments in infrastructure, vehicles and services. This will strengthen economic connectivity, enhance social accessibility, and support environmental sustainability, including facilitating a significant part of the UK's commitment to being carbon neutral by 2050.