The national bus strategy

The national bus strategy

  1. If deregulation is dead then what is this that is replacing it?

For years we have been arguing that passengers in our areas don’t want on-street competition and private companies determining the key public service that they rely on. Instead they want single, integrated bus networks as part of wider single, integrated public transport networks. The national bus strategy shows that argument has now been won. It’s striking too how few friends bus deregulation has now that nobody seems to have turned up at its funeral yesterday to mourn its passing and to defend Nicholas Ridley’s original vision of a free and competitive market for bus services. But if deregulation as we knew it is dead then what is this that is replacing it?

The National Bus Strategy goes into a remarkable level of detail of what bus networks should look like in the future – from how buses routes should be numbered to how the fares should be structured and charged. In essence it wants the kind of bus network you would get through specification via a franchise or through municipal provision. But though franchising (and perhaps municipal operation in the future) are seen as legitimate ways of achieving these goals by the strategy, in effect bus services in England are being herded to the top of an Enhanced Partnership ski slope and given a hefty push. No Enhanced Partnership by April next year – no money. And whereas the few Enhanced Partnerships that exist have taken years to put in place, the Government wants the whole of England to be papered over with EP agreements (other than those who are on the franchise route) in a years’ time.

In some ways, it makes sense to seek to reduce the wriggle room that could translate into years of endless negotiations between local authorities and bus operators only to arrive at a watered down compromise and yet another bus strategy. But at the same time there has to be a danger that, on these timescales and with local government spending cuts having decimated transport planning capacity in the shires in particular, weak and baggy Enhanced Partnerships will emerge in order to access the cash – whilst the details that matter to passengers are spun out into the future. And Enhanced Partnerships are still a product of negotiation – rather than dictation by local authorities on behalf of national government in pursuit of a precise outcome. They also still operate within a deregulated market which is overseen by the competition authorities. So just how far can we expect the Enhanced Partnership tool to deliver the kind of  fully integrated single network with highly specified outcomes that the Government wants all across the country?

More widely, are we now entering – in theory at least – a strange hybrid model for bus provision where those operating bus services (when the music stopped before the pandemic) get to carry on but under a kind of quasi licence from local government which itself is under a kind of quasi licence from national government? And all within what is still nominally a free market where new entrants could burst upon the scene at any moment. Meanwhile, the bus strategy is in danger of bias against the route one option that could deliver the outcomes it wants – which is to write down precisely what you want and ask companies to bid to provide it. Because if you start an Enhanced Partnership to get the funding how easy, legally and otherwise, would it be to later ride two horses by starting the franchising process? How do you work closely with incumbent operators on an EP and at the same time run a free and fair franchising process where non-incumbents are on level terms? It’s strange too that though the document is keenly aware of the problems with timelines on franchising – and sets an ambitious timeline for Enhanced Partnerships – there is no mention of any reforms of the 2017 legislation which could learn the lessons from the slow take up and implementation of the powers it contains.

2. How much?

The National Bus Strategy is not short on ambition. It wants more services serving more places. It wants cheaper and simpler fares. It wants high spec green buses. It wants extensive bus priority everywhere. All of this will not come cheap when the pre-pandemic base case was that subsidy was well below what was needed to stem decline. Keeping bus services running during the pandemic is also burning through cash at a prodigious rate – and no one knows for sure how long social distancing will remain – or whether a post-summer third wave could mean restrictions are reintroduced. We know we have COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant for now and we know we have the PM’s £3 billion. But beyond that we don’t know too much. Including what the quantum of overall funding will be available for bus, how it will be distributed or what the total price tag would be for all the goodies the Government wants. This doesn’t make it easy for anyone to plan ahead to deliver on both the ambitions and timescales that Government has set. On the plus side, with the PM right behind a policy which has pledged to transform bus services, however much HMT sucks its teeth about the price tag it will be difficult for them now to undermine the PM by cutting the bus industry off at the knees.

3. Beyond the headlines

There are some pretty hefty aspirations loitering in the odd paragraph here and there (all with their own price tags). Check these out for starters…

  • Five Glider schemes. I’m a big fan of Glider (and also good to see Northern Ireland get some attention for the good stuff it does on bus) but Glider works because it was very well thought through for the specific corridors it operates on and because the money was spent to ensure its quality from start to finish. Gliders in England will need to do the same if they are to work anywhere near as well.
  • A review of the eligibility for free bus travel for disabled people with a view to improving equality of opportunity.
  • Through fares for any journey involving bus, rail and light rail.

4. The dog that didn’t bark

The lack of any reference to addressing the antediluvian oversight and regulation of bus safety outside London is a big hole in the bus strategy. How can it be right that for rail and for buses in London, the analysis and data is there on safety risks and accidents (and is being systematically addressed) but nothing close to this exists for buses outside London? There is a glimmer of hope though in the review of the public service registration standards – which could be used to require reporting and data on accidents and risk.

So to borrow some lines from the late great Eric Morecambe. The national bus strategy has all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. But with some positive thinking…

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

A longer version of this blog appeared in Passenger Transport magazine

Budget 2021: Five key takeaways for urban transport

1. The one year 2020 Spending Review, and the multi-year 2021 Spending Review, are more significant for urban transport than the Budget was likely to be – and indeed, proved to be. Also, between now and the 2021 Spending Review, we will have the bus strategy, and, if the road map to COVID-19 recovery works out, the Government will need to take some decisions on how it will fill the patronage/funding gap that COVID-19 will still leave behind. So plenty still to play for.

However, although public spending wasn’t the main focus of the Budget, it did put more flesh on the bones of the new funding streams that were announced in the 2020 Spending Review – perhaps most notably on the Levelling Up Fund. It also showed that the political dimension to funding choices, that are always implicit, are becoming more explicit through more ranking of areas to be prioritised and the greater involvement of local MPs.

2. Glass half empty? The Resolution Foundation analysis is that the Budget has further sharpened the axe which hangs over non-protected Government departments. They say: ‘Further planned cuts to public services spending will see budgets for unprotected departments (such as transport and local government) fall by £2.6bn next year (2022-23). And that by 2024-25, day to day public service spending per capita in unprotected departments will still be almost one-quarter lower than in 2009-10, with less than a fifth of the reduction in spending between 2009-10 and 2018-19 having been unwound. These spending cuts assume no further spending pressures elsewhere, which is highly unlikely given what’s in store for the NHS, schools and social care over the coming years.’

This is a particular concern in relation to the revenue support that public transport needs to recover, never mind, build its often low share of the trips that people make. It also has implications for the already denuded capacity of local transport authorities to retain and develop the skills and capacity they need to deliver capital investment and meet the increasingly complex environmental and social challenges that cities face.

3. Glass half full? Most of the extra £5bn promised for bus and active travel that the Prime Minister pledged in February 2020, is still to come. If you add in the existing Transforming Cities Fund and the new funds on their way, then potentially there could be significant capital funding on its way to spend on the right things on urban transport (public transport and active travel). Plus, few could argue that post industrial towns are not overdue an investment boost.

4. Meanwhile there’s a danger of a swing back to greater centralisation of decision-making with the risk that the Intra-city Transport Fund in particular becomes a tool by which HMT can manage the priorities of city regions which should be left to determine their own futures. More widely, the Budget reinforced the trend of recent years away from block funding towards places having to please and convince terribly clever people in London about the merits of their bids into multiple competitive funding pots.

5. One day a Chancellor is going to have to grasp the nettle of significant road vehicle taxation reform – not least because of the rise of electric vehicles. But yesterday wasn’t that day. The fuel duty escalator remains frozen. This further undermines both public transport’s competitive position and the slow progress being made to reduce transport’s drag on wider Government carbon reduction targets. But it could be that as the pandemic recedes, that 2021 is the year when more kites are flown around how a new and more progressive fiscal and charging regime for road vehicles could also fill the revenue gap that the electrification of vehicle fleets will cause in the current system.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Bus strategy is our opportunity to safeguard industry’s future

Over the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic we have witnessed dramatic changes for public transport that will continue to present us with major challenges for some time to come.

Three national lockdowns, the continued ‘stay at home’ messaging from Government, and the requirement for social distancing have decimated patronage across rail, bus and tram networks. Unless we take action now, there is a strong risk any recovery will be car-led, with more people choosing to take their cars over any form of public transport.

In my own region, the West Midlands, recent figures show rail has taken the biggest hit, operating at just ten per cent of pre-pandemic passenger numbers. Our light rail system, West Midlands Metro, is faring better at around 43 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, partly because of the unique nature of the network and the areas and types of employment in those areas that it serves.

Bus is currently carrying around a third of passenger numbers compared to pre-Covid levels – a statistic that is consistent with most city regions in England during national lockdowns.

We can see that the bus has throughout the last year provided a vital and affordable transport service to those who still need it. Whether it is for people who travel for essential work journeys, to medical appointments or to pick up shopping for those more vulnerable, the bus has remained a constant supporter throughout the pandemic. 

In the West Midlands, extra services were required and delivered on some routes when schools were open for the autumn term. The bus has also provided a much-needed service for our healthcare workers travelling to work throughout the past year, ensuring they can continue caring for our most vulnerable residents.

There is perhaps an assumption that a large part of the UK’s workforce is able to work from home, but it’s important to point out that these people are actually in a minority.

The Centre for Cities estimates that urban areas in the South East of England have been better able to transition to working from home. Cities such as London and Reading have among the highest shares of people able to work from home (more than 40 per cent), whereas in Stoke, just up the road from where we are here in the West Midlands, it is thought to be less than 20 per cent of workers.

Those people who cannot work from home are more likely to be bus users – lower paid, less likely to have access to a car and travelling shorter distances to jobs.

Not only is the bus vital for those who continue to travel to work, but it will be equally important for those people who currently find themselves unemployed or furloughed. With unemployment at its highest level for four years, a figure that could rise higher still after the furlough scheme ends, the scale of the challenge is huge.

Pre-pandemic data suggests that 77 per cent of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike, and so the bus must be ready and waiting to connect people to job opportunities or new education and training necessary for this brave new world.

But the future of the bus – and a fairer, more socially equitable economic recovery to which it can contribute – is deeply uncertain.

Across the country bus patronage was in decline before the arrival of coronavirus (although in the West Midlands this decline had been stemmed and we had seen a modest upturn since 2018).

Part of the problem has been the way bus services were funded prior to the pandemic – by a complex patchwork of declining, poorly targeted funding streams, which were insufficient to stem patronage decline, to prevent networks from shrinking and to stop fares from rising.

During this crisis, the Government has rightly provided additional emergency funding, which has allowed transport authorities to keep the wheels turning.

But now, more than ever, we need to put bus funding on a secure, long-term footing that recognises the role it currently plays for those who rely on it most, and how it can contribute to a more prosperous and greener future.

The forthcoming bus strategy provides a once in a generation opportunity to do so, and Government must take these three steps.

First, it should assess how much funding is needed to deliver improved bus services and devolve that funding to transport authorities – those who understand local markets, can innovate quickly and can target that funding to achieve the best results for their people.

Then, local authorities and integrated transport authorities can contractually provide bus networks on an emergency, short-term basis to deliver specified outcomes.

This will act as a stepping stone toward finally using streamlined provisions in the Bus Services Act 2017 so that when we do arrive at a ‘new normal’ for bus use, transport authorities can choose either better regulated partnership arrangements with existing operators, the franchising of networks of services (like in London) or direct provision.

In the West Midlands, working with operators and Transport Focus through our bus alliance, we had begun to stem the decline and modernise services with contactless ticketing, capped fares, real time travel updates and free Wi-Fi. Further innovations such as flexible season tickets for those who continue to work part-time at home, for example, will be needed to keep passengers on board.

Whatever route is taken, this devolved approach means that bus networks could be planned and coordinated in a way that puts local people and jobs first, whilst at the same time being accountable and providing value for money for the taxpayer.

If we do not take action, those who deserted public transport during the pandemic will not return. Those with a choice will take the car or jump in an Uber and leave our roads congested, making it even harder to meet our clean air and climate change targets.

The Prime Minister’s existing £3bn pledge for buses and the urgency with which it is seeking to publish a blueprint for the future are encouraging signs that this Government does understand what’s at stake. We must make sure that it takes this opportunity to safeguard the future of the bus once and for all.  

Laura Shoaf is Managing Director for Transport for West Midlands, and Chair of the Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Local Transport Today magazine