The National Bus Strategy one year on – what progress so far?

16 March 2022
The National Bus Strategy one year on – what progress so far?

After years of campaigning, the first National Bus Strategy, Bus Back Better, was finally published one year ago. We welcomed its scale of ambition, promising simpler and lower fares, improved frequencies, more bus priority and cleaner buses.

To deliver this, local transport authorities (LTAs) were asked to form Enhanced Partnerships or work towards franchising, and to develop ambitious Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) to access funds from a £3 billion ‘transformational’  pot. So what has been achieved so far?

Funding struggles

The good news is that all 79 LTAs across England stepped up, committed to Enhanced Partnerships (with some combined authorities also pursuing franchising) and submitted BSIPs to the Department for Transport (DfT) for assessment. The bad news is that the total funding requests from all authorities came to over £7 billion, while at the same time the funding available for BSIPs (or ‘transformational deals’ as DfT calls them) was slashed to just £1.15 billion in last October’s Spending Review. This means that some difficult prioritisation will need to happen on how the funding will be allocated – more on this later.

Bad timing

While it is difficult to ascertain the attribution of different funding pots, there is a possibility that some of the funding for the strategy has been channelled towards recovery grants to help buses weather the impact of reduced passenger numbers during the pandemic. While there had been a longer-term trend of decline, passenger numbers plummeted during the pandemic and have struggled to recover since. While the much-needed extension of the recovery grant to October helped prevent the funding cliff-edge and service cuts we dreaded, we hope this was not at the expense of already diminished BSIP funding. Also, it should be accompanied by a national government campaign to get people back on board public transport, otherwise come October either cuts to services will still be needed or BSIP funding will need to be channelled towards propping them up.

Hard choices

How the BSIPs funding will be allocated will be crucial to what impact the strategy achieves. We know the DfT has reviewed and ranked all submissions. It was due to make indicative funding allocations known in February 2022 and final allocations after the draft Enhanced Partnership Plans were submitted by the end of April, but this seems to have been delayed.

In any case, some hard choices face decision makers. Do they spread a limited pot much more thinly, asking LTAs to cherry-pick a limited scale of measures with the danger that this could mean that without the whole package planned, wider service improvements may not materialise? Or do they fund a much smaller number of LTAs, most likely urban, that stand a better chance to generate return on investment? This would mean that authorities deemed as lacking ambition that have tended to miss out on funding in the past will continue to miss out.

Levelling up authorities

While we knew at the beginning that local authorities are best placed to review local needs and to plan the services that best meet those needs, we were also clear that many LTAs lacked the resources and expertise to deliver on the strategy’s ambitions. The strategy also recognised this and promised support through a £25 million capability fund and a Bus Centre of Excellence. So we were pleased when the DfT commissioned us to examine what the gaps are in different types of authorities and how best the centre of excellence can help address these.

Our research found some LTAs struggled with lack of capacity and expertise due to transport teams shrinking over time, which prevented them from putting compelling funding bids together. The prevalence of a competitive funding environment, coupled with some local councillors’ reluctance to tackle car dependency, had therefore led to low levels of ambition on improving local bus services.

The dilemma of the BSIP allocations is that these are exactly the kinds of authorities that need the funding and the support from the centre of excellence to level up their capacity and ambitions. But if they receive nothing from the limited pot available, the cycle of decline will only continue, particularly given the impact of the pandemic.

Although publication of the DfT commissioned report is still pending since its completion more than seven months ago, we know that the Department has been using our research to help support authorities. But it is now vital that smaller authorities whose proposals may not be top of the pack are not penalised. LTAs that do not receive BSIP funding at this stage must still be offered capability-building funding and support to overcome barriers they may face internally and locally. At Campaign for Better Transport we also stand ready to directly support any authority looking to bring buses and wider sustainable transport options higher up their list of priorities.

A year on since its publication, we would have hoped to have started to see the green shoots of the better bus services the strategy promised, unfortunately we, and bus passengers, are still waiting.