Across England, buses carry twice as many passengers as rail, providing lifeline travel opportunities in rural areas and high-volume mass transport on congested urban networks. ‘Bus Back Better‘, the National Bus Strategy for England (NBS), launched on 15th March, has been broadly welcomed by most involved with the bus industry.
It builds on the funding changes delivered during the pandemic and the challenges resulting from it. The NBS sets a consistent framework for bus service planning and delivery across England outside London.
The impact of a failure in ensuring engagement between LTAs and operators will have severe consequences, including loss of Covid Bus Services Support Grant funding and the potential decimation of the commercial bus network
The intention is that its primary tool, Enhanced Quality Partnerships (EQPs), will provide opportunities and incentives in aligning the objectives of bus users, local transport authorities and bus operators within the broad structure of the deregulated bus market established in 1985.
It places the onus on Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) and Mayoral Combined Authorities to lead on the processes and requirements of the NBS. EQPs bring obligations to both public and private sectors, so again putting liabilities on LTAs to deliver on their promises.
The need for operators to collaborate with the LTAs builds on existing relationships, supports the development of the bus product, and will enable better alignment with local policies and plans. Franchising remains an option, but EQPs are the preferred approach.
While LTAs will welcome the headline funding figures identified to support the restoration and growth in bus services; breaking down the elements into their constituent parts makes more sober reading.
Given the requirement for a minimum of 25% match-funding, the £120m for zero emission buses available in 2021/22 is likely to support the purchase of perhaps 300 to 400 buses and associated charging and refuelling infrastructure, out of a non-London English fleet of approximately 23,000.
Based on 86 authorities being eligible for funding, the £300m for service enhancements in 2021/22 equates to roughly £3.5m per LTA. This could buy around 300 bus hours per day at marginal rates, giving a modest increase in service but going some way to restoring evening and weekend journeys to provide a network that caters for many more employment and leisure opportunities.
The headline £3bn could become approximately £1.7bn for priority interventions, excluding other funding elements, giving an average of £20m per LTA over the life of the Strategy.
More positively, the £25m in 2021/22 for LTA capacity building shows an understanding that most authorities’ public transport team funding has been subject to systematic reductions. These reductions have seen the removal of capabilities to co-ordinate the NBS’ requirements, undertake the mandated regular monitoring, and conduct the negotiations required to conclude an EQP.
The funding will help support staff recruitment and training, although the NBS timescales suggest many LTAs will need to engage external support. An initial £100,000 is available immediately (requested from DfT by 16th April) with follow-on funding after June 2021.
There is a promise of detailed guidance during April, setting out procedural matters. In the interim, drawing on the process elements outlined in the EQP guidance and the NBS, LTAs should begin the various analysis tasks whose outputs they will need to compile the Partnership documents. The requirements of internal LTA governance will also drive wider timeframes.
Determining how these fit with the NBS obligations will provide a strong steer as to the periods available to undertake the likely required consultations and analysis.
An Enhanced Quality Partnership comprises two parts: the Plan which defines the problems to be addressed, establishes an evidence base and sets out the ambition and targets to be achieved, and also; the scheme that develops the measures to be delivered by each partner. The NBS’ requirement to produce a Bus Service Improvement Plan by the end of October 2021 essentially combines the Plan and the Scheme into a single document. Again, the awaited NBS guidance will provide clarity.
However, we believe that many will spend the period from April to October 2021 negotiating and developing the EQP Plan and Scheme and use the period from October 2021 to April 2022, undertaking the consultations required to get the approvals they will need.
Running throughout the NBS are the themes of consultation and engagement. The EQP guidance lists statutory consultees of: operators; passenger representatives; other local authorities affected by the EQP; the relevant Traffic Commissioner; the local Chief of Police; Transport Focus; the Competition and Markets Authority; and anyone else the LTA determines will be affected by the EQP.
With each LTA strongly encouraged to make an EQP, will the NBS guidance change any of these consultation requirements? In particular, we may see a removal of the requirements for the CMA and Traffic Commissioners to have a formal input, but until the publication of the NBS guidance, LTAs should consider their engagement, and plan for the associated implications on timescales.
There is a recommendation to establish an EQP Board; to provide oversight and support monitoring of the Scheme’s effectiveness. Given that making an EQP will require significant compromises and some tough negotiating to reach a series of commitments in the Scheme to which each side can commit, independent oversight of the process would seem to be essential. LTAs may draw members of the Board from the statutory consultees and other bodies such as LEPs. Establishing such oversight arrangements can take time, so LTAs should consider the expected composition and terms of reference early.
Publication of an impact assessment of the EQP on small and medium-sized operators is also a requirement, so there is a need to be careful concerning aspirations and obligations. Fleet decarbonisation targets need to consider how to keep the tendered service market competitive.
Timescales for some elements of the NBS are tight, with immediate actions suggested by LTAs on the following tasks:
Determining governance deadlines to the NBS key dates to ensure clarity on what documentation they require by which date for approval by stakeholders, including at an LTA member level;
Ensuring submission of application for the £100,000 interim funding to the DfT before 16th April, as set out in the letter from Baroness Vere to all LTA and MCA Chief Executives on 15th March;
Progressing discussions with operators, seeking information to support the network congestion analysis, potential fleet renewal profiles and suggestions for recasting the network within funding availability; and
The opportunities offered by the NBS afford a new collaborative structure for bus services in England. The impact of a failure in ensuring engagement between LTAs and operators will have severe consequences, including loss of Covid Bus Services Support Grant funding and the potential decimation of the commercial bus network.
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