On the buses

By Christine Quigley

The Prime Minister has never been shy about his love of buses. In 2019, he hit the headlines by admitting that he likes to relax by making models of buses out of wine crates, while as Mayor of London he was frequently snapped in the driver’s seat of one of the 1,000 New Routemasters he commissioned. This love seems to have reaped dividends, with the publication yesterday of England’s first-ever national strategy for buses. 

Snappily titled Bus Back Better, in line with the Government’s levelling-up agenda, the strategy has a clear goal, to increase bus patronage from pre-pandemic levels and raise modal share, to avoid a car-led economic recovery. Bus passengers will likely welcome the broad aims of the strategy, including decarbonisation and newer buses, high levels of service and punctuality, and most importantly lower fares and integrated ticketing. 

The strategy itself is a significant U-turn on previous Conservative policy on buses. Firstly, it aims to effectively bring to an end the deregulation of buses outside London, introduced by Thatcher’s Government with the Transport Act 1985. Secondly, the strategy promises to review the current prohibition on local authorities establishing new municipalised bus companies, which was enforced just four years ago with the Bus Services Act 2017. 

In place of the current regulatory system, the Government provides two options. City regions with an elected Metro Mayor will be given powers to franchise their bus services, similar to how Transport for London contracts with private operators to deliver bus services. Local transport authorities (LTAs) outside these regions can apply for franchising powers, but all those who do not will be expected to establish an Enhanced Partnership with their local operators within just three months. This will allow LTAs to specify various elements of services to be provided, like timetables or multi-operator ticketing, in a more flexible way than franchising. Within these Enhanced Partnerships, operators will work in partnership with local authorities, and the strategy is clear about the value that private bus companies provide in terms of knowledge and entrepreneurial skills. 

Controversially, the extension of current coronavirus support for the bus industry, the Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant (CBSSG) is explicitly tied to the establishment of new Enhanced Partnerships or bids for franchising from 1st July.  This means that local authorities and operators alike will need to accept potentially significant changes to their current operating models in order to continue receiving funding to compensate for the high levels of buses they need to run for low numbers of passengers to enable social distancing. While many local authorities will welcome more control over bus services in their areas, the strategy also raises questions about the increasing burden on local government in England, while local authority spending power has fallen by 18% since 2010

Bus Back Better puts transport decarbonisation at the heart of the Government’s bus strategy. Campaigners for electric and hydrogen buses will be pleased to see the promise to reform the Bus Service Operators’ Grant, originally introduced as a fuel duty subsidy, and which has in practice supported diesel and hybrid vehicles at the expense of zero-emission buses. Again, only areas operating under either franchising or Enhanced Partnerships will be entitled to receive the reformed BSOG, which will be consulted on later this year. This is combined with a clear direction to purchase low- or ultra-low emission vehicles only where a zero-emission vehicle is not a viable operational alternative. The strategy does not specify a particular technology for new buses, although it expresses the view that battery-electric buses are currently more efficient users of energy, while hydrogen may work better for longer journeys in rural areas.  

So what will all of these changes mean for the average bus user? If you live in a city, you’re more likely to be able to take advantage of integrated multimodal tickets, and potentially lower flat fares. You should also see more services during evenings and weekends, but reductions in services if local authorities see there being too many competing routes. The bus you travel on is more likely to be at least partly powered by electricity. If you live in a rural area, you won’t necessarily see the same increase in bus services, but point-to-point fares may be lower and you may be able to travel on smaller, demand-responsive buses rather than timetabled services. The Government’s ambitions for bus services are high, but putting this strategy into practice will be a challenge for local and national government and operators alike in the coming months.