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£3bn bus strategy envisages a ‘turn up and go’ future for England

PM and DfT set out plans for more bus lanes, capped fares, contactless payment and electric bus fleets

Mark Moran
15 March 2021
The National Bus Strategy for England was unveiled by the Prime Minister as he toured the National Express depot in Coventry
The National Bus Strategy for England was unveiled by the Prime Minister as he toured the National Express depot in Coventry

 

The UK Government has unveiled a £3bn transport strategy for England that it claims will lead to the creation of hundreds of miles of new bus lanes, fares with daily price caps and more evening and weekend services.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said the Government’s new bus strategy envisages passengers across England benefiting from bus services that are more frequent, reliable, easier to use and understand, better coordinated and cheaper.

The changes proposed in 'Bus Back Better' include: simpler bus fares with daily price caps, so people can use the bus as many times a day as they need without facing mounting costs; more services in the evenings and at the weekends; integrated services and ticketing across all transport modes, so people can easily move from bus to train; and all buses accepting contactless payments.

The strategy hopes to create hundreds of miles of new bus lanes to make journeys quicker and more reliable, encouraging people out of their cars, thus reducing pollution and operating costs.

The DfT expects to see local authorities and operators working together to deliver bus services that are so frequent that passengers can just ‘turn up and go’ – no longer needing to rely on a traditional timetable and having the confidence they will not wait more than a few minutes.

The strategy was unveiled by the Prime Minister as he toured the National Express depot in Coventry, which he said would become the UK's first electric bus city.

The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan sets out how the government plans to deliver 4,000 new British-built electric or hydrogen buses, transition cities and regions across England to emission-free buses, and safeguard the UK bus manufacturing industry. It also promises to end sales of new diesel buses.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Buses are lifelines and liberators, connecting people to jobs they couldn’t otherwise take, driving pensioners and young people to see their friends, sustaining town centres and protecting the environment. As we build back from the pandemic, better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling up.

“Just as they did in London, our reforms will make buses the transport of choice, reducing the number of car journeys and improving quality of life for millions. The fragmented, fully commercialised market, which has operated outside London since 1986, will end. We want to see operators and local councils enter into statutory ‘enhanced partnerships’ or franchising agreements to receive the new funding and deliver the improvements.”

It is expected that many councils will choose enhanced partnerships, where local authorities work closely with bus companies, drawing on their operating knowledge and marketing skills. Others may decide that franchising works better for them.

Because of the decline in use caused by the pandemic, bus operators have been receiving emergency support from the government. From this summer, only services under these arrangements will be eligible for continued support or any new sources of funding from the £3bn transformational investment. The government will also consult later this year on reforming the Bus Service Operators Grant – the current main stream of government bus funding – to achieve the same objectives.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Buses are this country’s favourite way of getting around. They help us get to school, to the GP, or to the shops – but services across England are patchy, and it’s frankly not good enough.

“The quality of bus service you receive shouldn’t be dependent on where you live. Everyone deserves to have access to cheap, reliable and quick bus journeys.

“The strategy we’re unveiling today will completely overhaul services, ensuring we build back better from the pandemic. Key to it is the new deal it offers to councils – we will provide unprecedented funding, but we need councils to work closely with operators, and the government, to develop the services of the future.”

The strategy sets out ambitions to provide greater access to bus services for all, with plans revealed to require ‘next stop’ announcements on board buses throughout Great Britain, helping disabled passengers and others to travel with confidence. The government said it would also launch a consultation on new regulations to improve access on board buses for wheelchair users.

As London-style services are not appropriate for all rural and suburban areas, the DfT is also announcing the recipients of the £20m from the government’s rural mobility fund, which enables on-demand services, such as minibuses booked via an app, to be trialled in areas where a traditional bus service is not appropriate.

Reactions: Transport bodies

The Urban Transport Group, the network of UK transport authorities that serve the areas where the vast majority of bus trips are made, welcomed the national bus strategy.

Laura Shoaf, chair of the Urban Transport Group, said: ‘‘We welcome the national bus strategy’s positive and ambitious vision for the future of the bus and its commitment to giving locally accountable transport authorities a key role in determining the future of their local bus services – either through more tightly regulated agreements with existing operators or through the franchising of networks of services.

“Prior to the pandemic, bus use and bus networks were in decline and fares were increasing – so the additional funding pledged by the Government is welcome. There can be no green and just recovery from the pandemic without better bus services so the bus will continue to need a bigger slice of overall transport spending and for this funding to be sustained over the long term.

“We also stand ready to play our full part in decarbonising bus fleets where we will have a vital role to play in ensuring that green buses are part of a wider strategy for decarbonising urban vehicle fleets and ensuring that the infrastructure is in place to provide the green energy that will be required.

“The bus is relied upon by those with the least and by those communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. We will therefore need to act fast to ensure that the ambitions of the strategy can be realised as soon as possible. The bus strategy needs to be followed by both a streamlining of the legislation, so we can move more quickly to introduce franchising or enhanced partnerships, as well as by simpler, enhanced and devolved bus funding for transport authorities so we can move rapidly to support better bus networks and cheaper fares.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “For bus passengers, today’s announcement of more frequent buses and simpler fares will be welcome news. For many, buses are a lifeline to employment, education, medical appointments and leisure, and are essential to the economy. We know that the key priorities for those considering using the bus are more services running more reliably, providing better value.

“Since the pandemic, safety and cleanliness have become ever more important. We will work with bus operators and other partners to make sure passengers’ needs are at the heart of new arrangements.”

Paul Tuohy, chief executive for Campaign for Better Transport, also gave the strategy a positive response: “We welcome this hugely ambitious and much needed boost for local buses. We are pleased that the Government not only accepted our calls for a National Bus Strategy, but that the Strategy aims to deliver many of our key asks. As ever, the devil is in the detail, but this is an important step for local buses and, if combined with measures to reduce car use, will help to truly make public transport the first choice for journeys.”

Reaction: Local government

Cllr Darren Rodwell, Local Government Association transport spokesperson, said: “Councils want to work with government to make sure every community is able to access a local bus service. We would urge government to also plug the £700m annual funding gap councils faced before the pandemic in providing the concessionary fares scheme, which would help to protect local routes and reverse the decline in bus services.”

The strategy was unveiled by the Prime Minister in Coventry. Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “Buses are the backbone of public transport in the West Midlands, carrying more than 250 million people every year. Today’s strategy will enable big city regions such as ours to ensure buses remain at the heart of our future transport plans.

“Residents here want clean, decarbonised buses that are affordable and continue to remain reliable and punctual, and that’s what the new strategy laid out today will deliver.”

Reaction: Bus operators

Bus operator Stagecoach welcomed the new strategy. Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach chief executive, said: “We welcome the ambition in the government's new bus strategy. For too long, the power of buses to transform local communities and local people's lives has been overlooked. The new bus strategy provides an opportunity for all partners – operators, national government and local authorities – to work together to harness the huge potential of the bus to help tackle climate change, deliver better air quality in our towns and cities, secure improved mobility for local people and support a sustainable economic recovery for the country. 

“Planning our towns and cities around green buses and active travel, rather than private cars, is central to delivering faster, better value services and getting more people back on board the bus. That is why it is critical that the new bus strategy is matched by the right level of funding, consistent policy across government and a flexible partnership approach which prioritises benefits for customers and local communities.”

Alex Hornby, chief executive of bus company Transdev, said: “We believe buses can make our towns and cities better. As a form of sustainable mass transit, they enable the most people to move about in a safe, comfortable and efficient way. Often the lowest emission vehicles on the road, they set the example as a clean and green form of transport. We look forward to picking up the agenda with our local authority partners to deliver improvements that will translate into a huge step-change in the perception of the bus and in customer growth.”

Transdev launched a blueprint for action in November 2020 called Build Buses Back Better (buildbusesbackbetter), which put forward ideas such as more bus priority measures in urban areas and zero or low-emission zones in town and city centres.

Reaction: Opposition parties

The Opposition parties signalled that they were underwhelmed by the strategy.

In a statement, Labour's shadow bus minister Sam Tarry said: “This so-called strategy offers nothing for those who were looking for a bold vision to reverse the millions of miles of bus routes lost across the country. The Tories said deregulation would improve our buses but they're running bus services into the ground. Passengers now face a toxic mix of rising fares, cuts to services and reduced access.”

Sarah Olney, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for transport, said: “It's welcome that the Conservatives have finally realised that people take buses, however today's announcement will not reverse their endless cuts to our vital bus networks. Liberal Democrats believe local authorities must be at the heart of any bus strategy. This includes giving them power to run their own bus services, instead of being shackled to unpopular private bus companies who too often fail the communities they serve.”

Reaction: Trade unions

Trade unions were critical of the plan. Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said the strategy appeared to “lack ambition” for addressing the challenges of getting people back on to sustainable public transport following the Covid-19 pandemic. He said: “The only way to deliver an effective, integrated, accessible and affordable local bus network is for the government to provide guaranteed ringfenced national funding for all local authorities to deliver the bus services their communities require.”

The Unite union, which represents more than 70,000 bus workers, said the plan would not be enough to reverse a decade of service cuts that have left communities isolated.

“The national bus strategy is an admission that the 1980s deregulation of the bus service has been a complete failure,” said Bobby Morton, the union's national officer for passenger transport. “Fares have increased, services have reduced, private operators cherry-pick the most profitable routes and social exclusion has mushroomed as connectivity has been cut.”

 
 
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