A new report by the House of Commons Transport Committee’s is arguing that, while the Government’s 2021 National Bus Strategy was ambitious, full of good ideas and supported by extra, much-needed funding, it must maintain its focus to achieve it and build a network fit for the post-pandemic world with more investment in cashless payments, smart ticketing, priority bus routes and demand responsive services.
In the report “Implementation of the National Bus Strategy“, the cross-party Committee also calls for more consistent funding to achieve the Government’s goal of having 4,000 zero-emission buses on UK’s roads by the end of the Parliament. And whilst a shift to electric or hydrogen buses is essential, efforts to encourage people out of their cars by making bus services more reliable should also be prioritised to help cut carbon emissions.
MPs also call for long overdue reform of the Bus Service Operators Grant so that firms aren’t incentivised to stick to diesel vehicles, and new guidance on how local authorities can support ‘socially and economically necessary services’, which are vital for communities but may be unprofitable to maintain.
The bus sector is in a tough spot. Bus use outside London has been in decline for decades and fell by 15% between 2010/11 and 2018/19. Post-pandemic many people’s lives have changed, altering when and where they wish to travel. Reduced passenger numbers have left many services hanging by a thread and dependent on the Government’s short-term recovery funding. The Government has responded with the welcomed £2 fare cap, but it needs to do more.
Transport Committee Chair Iain Stewart MP said: “The humble bus remains Britain’s most used mode of public transport. It is vital to many people’s lives, be they young or old, for getting to work, school or hospital. But patronage, and service levels in England outside London have been in decline for years and this trend was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The Government’s 2021 National Bus Strategy recognised that something had to be done. We warmly welcomed its ambition and invention, as did many others in the sector. But our report finds that, while many of the Strategy’s ideas were on the right track, progress in implementing them has sometimes been too slow, and in some cases, too piecemeal. There have been some successes, such as the recently announced Bus Centre of Excellence, but not all local areas in England have received sufficient funding to realise their ambitions and make a real difference.
“The Government also set another ambitious target: 4,000 new zero-emission buses on the road by the end of the Parliament. We welcomed this again, but it seems increasingly unlikely to be met.
“Away from the National Bus Strategy, the sector is in a tough spot. It would be absurd to have spent billions supporting the ailing bus sector through the pandemic, and then see services decline. The £2 fare scheme was a great innovation, but ministers must continue to support the sector as it builds a new network fit for the post-pandemic world.”
Under the National Bus Strategy, local authorities were required to work with operators to develop a Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP), and encouraged to develop ‘demand response’ schemes, priority bus lanes, and to expand routes and service frequencies under Enhanced Partnership delivery models. Councils were also invited to bid for funding to support BSIPs from a £1.1bn pot of Department for Transport (DfT) funding. However, the Campaign for Better Transport found that 40% of bids were successful, and no local authority received the full amount that it bid for.
Whilst there were success stories with great examples of innovation and collaboration between councils and bus firms, the Committee heard complaints that the £1.1bn allocated was not enough, and pitted local authorities against one another. One unsuccessful Council said this risked creating a “two-tier system” where services vary wildly in quality across county borders. Others called the application process “chaotic” and complained about how long it took DfT to process bids. There were complaints that smaller councils with fewer resources were outgunned, and that the winning areas tended to have denser, more urban populations.
The Committee recommends that the Government commit further funding to enable more local authorities to develop and follow through on their BSIPs. Allowing roughly half the country to miss out risks entrenching or even
creating two-tier systems in which services improve in one area but worsen, or even disappear, in the next county. Without further rounds of funding this ‘national’ Strategy will barely scratch the surface. It is also crucial that DfT gives assistance to LAs that lost out so they can win next time.
The Committee also expresses disappointment that DfT has not fulfilled a previous promise to publish guidance on how councils can support ‘economically or socially necessary routes’, such as to schools or hospitals.
80% of Britain’s bus fleet ran on diesel as of April 2022, with less than 4% on either battery or hydrogen. The Government announced a £525m budget for assisting operators with upfront costs of buying zero-emission buses and refuelling/recharging infrastructure. It also committed to getting 4,000 ZEBs in operation by 2024. As of December 2022, funding had been allocated for 1,779 ZEBs, 447 orders have been placed, and only 87 ZEBs were on the road.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport said DfT’s funding process has been “complex and time consuming and can also be off-putting”. Whilst DfT’s plans to introduce more electric buses are welcome, the Committee heard that modal shift could have a greater impact on cutting emissions, particularly as slow progress is being made with getting grants to bus firms. This can only be achieved by succeeding in the Strategy’s main aims of making them more attractive.
The Committee also heard that electric buses currently lack the power capacity for particularly long distances and may not be suitable for all routes. It says Government should set out a clear, staged plan for the full transition to ZEBs, in tandem with the delayed response to its consultation on ending the sale of petrol and diesel buses. This should include a clear long-term funding plan focussed on difficult-to-decarbonise rural routes and supporting installation of new infrastructure. It should keep an open mind about whether this transition could also involve synthetic fuels.
The Committee also believes the Government should set out clearly how it plans to evaluate the success of the National Bus Strategy across its various strands. It should also set out an indicative timescale for the scoping, consultation, and publication of future iterations of the Strategy.
(Picture – Parliament.uk)