All local transport authorities have now submitted their Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) to the Department for Transport (DfT). The plans are the first step in delivering fully integrated, quality bus services for all, as outlined in the national bus strategy, Bus Back Better.
The DfT asked authorities to involve bus operators in the plans’ development and to either form formal Enhanced Partnerships with operators to deliver services – which most authorities have opted for – or to move towards franchising where authorities specify the services they would like delivered. To assist local transport authorities in producing their plans, the DfT issued guidance on what the plans should contain and the priorities it expects to see in line with the bus strategy. These included:
- Simpler, cheaper, multi-operator tickets
- Better live bus information for all passengers
- Better turn-up-and-go frequencies that keep running into the evenings and at weekends
- More bus priority measures to speed up journeys
- Demand responsive services to plug gaps in remote areas
- Zero emission buses to further boost buses’ green credentials.
Levels of ambition
The plans will also form the basis of how new bus funding is allocated. The DfT has been clear that it wants to see ambitious proposals so it’s likely some local transport authorities will be told to produce a revised BSIP in order to access funding. Our preliminary analysis shows the metropolitan areas and some shire counties have typically produced high-quality BSIPs, looking to build on strong local bus networks, but a minority of authorities have been historically weak on support for bus services, with a low level of ambition. This must be tackled to ensure that all communities benefit from better buses in the future. We think the Government should reward those local transport authorities that include ambitious policies to encourage a shift from private to public transport in their plans, as well as demanding more from those whose plans are not up to scratch. Measures like reallocating road space from car parking to bus and cycle lanes show a commitment to addressing broader environmental and social issues and an acknowledgment that a degree of modal shift is not just desirable but necessary.
It is doubtful that the current funding available will be sufficient to level struggling authorities up and to achieve real transformation in ambitious authorities. The national strategy committed £3 billion in new funding for buses, but of this only £1.2 billion was allocated towards “transformation deals” for local bus services. We already know that the total cost of delivering all the BSIPs is many times this – at least £7 billion according to CPT, with Manchester alone asking for £630 million – so some difficult prioritisation will need to take place. The question is then, how will the funding be allocated and what will need to be scaled back as a result of any shortfall in funding? The terminology used in the Spending Review also suggests that some authorities may miss out completely despite all being asked to produce BSIPs.
Capacity and capability
As well as funding, local authorities will need support to implement their plans. Decades of neglect of local buses has left many authorities without the necessary capacity, expertise or resources to implement their proposals. This has been recognised by government and “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 was included in the national strategy. This is an area where we have been able to work directly with the DfT to examine the current and future staffing and skills requirements within local bus service teams and to help establish the type of support they need from the Bus Centre of Excellence. The findings will be published shortly, but unless the DfT directly targets under-resourced authorities, they will perennially continue to miss out on funding.
Another issue needing further attention is engaging communities. Due to the short turnaround times, most local authorities didn’t have time to consult properly on their BSIPs prior to their publication and only ran short surveys asking residents what improvements they wanted to see. We hope that the next stage of the plans allows for more meaningful public engagement and collaboration so that any gaps in provision can be identified and addressed. It is important that local people are brought on board with the plans if they are to be successful. Some measures, like bus priority, can be controversial and unless properly consulted and explained to local communities can become an issue, potentially eclipsing the intended benefits.
With BSIPs submitted at the end of October, local authorities must now wait for officials to review them before confirming funding allocations. The first step towards better bus services has been taken, now we wait to see whether the ambitions of the national strategy can be realised by local transport authorities.