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Can the new National Bus Strategy finally save our buses?

Silviya Barrett's picture

After years of campaigning, we finally saw the fruits of our labours on Monday when the Government published the long-awaited National Bus Strategy for England.

Despite buses being our most popular form of public transport, with over 4 billion journeys last year, there has never been an overarching national strategy. Our call for one was borne out of our Save Our Buses campaign. Launched in 2011, it aimed to highlight the decline of local authority-supported bus services. Budget cuts had left many areas without a usable bus service, which was helping to entrench car dependency.

We continued to monitor the cuts to council budgets over the next decade, culminating in our Future of Bus Funding report which revealed a 43 per cent reduction in local authority spending on bus services over ten years, leading to well over 3,000 routes fully or partially cut.

Thankfully the Government listened and committed to deliver a Strategy that aims address this long-term decline and create a bus network fit for the future.

The hugely ambitious Strategy announced this week contains many of the policies we have campaigned for over the years:

  • Fares: High prices are perhaps the biggest barrier to choosing buses. It makes no sense that in some areas it is cheaper, not to mention easier, for a family of four to take a taxi than the bus. Being able to make contactless payments and having daily price caps will improve affordability. But for buses to be the genuinely cheaper option, the Government needs to also review motor vehicle taxation
  • Bus priority: Slow journey times are another main factor deterring people from choosing buses. We, and bus operators, have long campaigned for more bus priority measures, so it was very encouraging to see that local authorities will need to include them in their transport plans as a condition for funding. Alongside improved real-time information for journey planning, this can really boost bus usage
  • Greater role of local authorities: By far the biggest change in the Strategy is placing greater emphasis on the role of local authorities. In many places, bus provision is disjointed between different operators and not planned as a coherent local network. We know that local authorities are best placed to review local needs and work with operators to plan the services that best meet those needs, so we were pleased that the Strategy will require authorities to form enhanced partnerships with operators or move towards franchising
  • Local authority capabilities: We also know however that the greatest barrier for local authorities to make these partnerships happen is lack of capacity and capability, so we are pleased the strategy recognises this. It promises ‘significant assistance’ in the form of a £25 million fund and a Bus Centre of Excellence delivering a long-term support programme to build up local authority capability. We are pleased to be working with the Department for Transport on this. Campaign for Better Transport has been asked to undertake research to examine the current and future staffing and skills requirements within those local authority teams who have a role managing or co-ordinating local bus services. We will be working with a range of  different types of authorities to help establish the type of support they need.
  • Bus funding: Alongside the powers, local authorities need the funding to deliver. We have long called for a single, ring-fenced, multi-year funding framework to provide increased certainty, so we welcome the commitment of a £3 billion fund to support the delivery of the Strategy, as well as the commitment to reform the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG). The Government will need to ensure that funding is ringfenced so it cannot be spent on other policy areas. Of course, £3 billion still pales into comparison against the £27 billion roads budget, but we are working with government to ensure a significant proportion of this is spent on bus and cycling schemes
  • Electric buses: we welcome the ambition to deliver 4,000 new British-built zero emission buses electric buses. In 2019, we called for all new buses to be zero emission from 2025 and for all buses on the road to be zero emission by 2035, so we are pleased that the Government is launching a consultation on this.

These are just some of the transformative policies announced in the Strategy and we will continue working constructively with the Department for Transport, local authorities and operators to make it happen. Overall a very positive step to helping put buses on the road to recovery.