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

Funding, sharing, recovery & legacy – a weekly blog post on urban transport and the COVID-19 crisis

Here are some Sunday morning reflections on where things stand for urban transport on the COVID-19 crisis as we prepare to begin another busy week.

1. We have done everything the Government has asked of us during the crisis – now we need the Government to stand behind us

The Government’s overall strategy has been helicopter drops of cash for households, business and local government, accompanied by relaxing of the legal and regulatory framework so that cash can be deployed by the recipients as soon as possible in order to keep the overall show on the road. This has been followed by sub-sectoral support. For transport, rail was first to go, with quasi re-nationalisation, leaving railway people free to get on with the job of running a core service. For bus (where bus deregulation makes life more complicated), we have already had phase one which is local and national government maintaining the funding flows they control for concessionary fares, supported services and fuel subsidies (BSOG), whether or not those services are being provided or not. Phase two should be ready to roll early this week (which broadly speaking will be additional payments for operators on the basis of the service they are actually providing). The idea is that in return for maintaining a level of public support that seeks to compensate for lost income from passengers, operators will do the right thing (provide an essential network based on where essential workers are and where they need to get to) in a collaborative way with transport authorities. And at the same time, that they won’t do the wrong things (like go ahead with planned fares rises). It’s early days yet on how well this plan will work in practice over the coming weeks – but it’s definitely a good thing that the Government has made additional funding support to maintain bus networks an early priority. And on the ground, private sector bus operators and public sector authorities and their staff are working hard to make it work and to provide the essential network that essential users need.

However, so far public sector transport authorities are not seeing any of the additional funding (other than at the margins). Additional funding for local government goes direct to councils not transport authorities and the extra funding for rail and bus goes to the private sector providers not the public sector transport authorities. And it’s not just those private sector providers that are haemorrhaging patronage (and therefore income) – the same is happening on our tram and light rail systems (like Manchester Metrolink and the Tyne and Wear Metro). Merseytravel is also financially exposed on its Merseyrail Electrics rail franchise and as the provider of a World City integrated public transport network, TfL is losing income on an altogether different magnitude.

At the same time as losing income on their own systems, transport authorities are also making good the lost income of private bus operators (through continuing to pay for concessionary travel and supported services, etc). And all authorities are losing revenue from rent, advertising and broken contract clauses (as projects are put on pause because of the virus). This can’t go on. Especially as this isn’t just about maintaining an essential service for essential workers in the here and now, it’s also about being in a fit state to crank services up when we come out of lockdown. Plus, being able to resume the kind of investment programmes and service improvements that will be needed to tackle problems that haven’t gone away in the meantime – like climate change and the levelling up agenda.

So a big part of our work in the week ahead will be making the case to Government for the funding deal transport authorities need. On this, we have had very good engagement with the Department for Transport Local Transport (who we know are working incredibly hard to move at pace). But to unlock the funding, the work we are doing with them needs to land at Treasury and be seen by Government as a whole as priority.

We have done everything the Government has asked of us in responding to this crisis – now we need the Government to get behind us.

2. Shared approaches to the crisis

The other big job we have (as we have been doing throughout the crisis) is networking between our transport authority members so they can share approaches. We do this through a series of rolling telecons with groups leading on light rail, bus, communications, staffing, active travel, legal and finance, as well as our overarching Board level co-ordinating group (which meets at least three times a week). As a complex coordination job this is working well.

3. Recovery and legacy

The task of winding down networks rapidly but matching them to the needs of essential workers (all whilst protecting staff and seeking to ensure social distancing and securing the funding and legal framework to do this) has been, and remains, an enormous operational and practical challenge. At some stage this process will go into partial and then full reverse (and then be partially or fully reversed again depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds) which will bring with it new operational challenges, which we are turning our attention to. There are also the wider and enormous long run ramifications of this transformation on all our lives for transport planning (from the future of the daily commute to whether this experiment in mass behaviour change will normalise or inhibit the kind of behavioural change that climate targets imply). Shaping the best legacy we can from the crisis is something that our Assistant Director, Becky Fuller, is leading on and that our transport planning group will be addressing in their first telecon next week.

Another week of tough challenges and long hours begins, but put into perspective by the news that five London bus drivers have died from the virus and the dedication of front line staff at our member organisations in keeping core public transport networks running.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group