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  • Gareth Davies

Bus Back Better to Where? May 2021

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

In October 2020 HSTG issued a report entitled The Bus Muddle. In it we identified that local authority bus budgets in England and Wales were cut by £20.5 million in 2019 - the eighth year in a row budgets have been cut. Since 2010/11, supported bus budgets in England and Wales have been cut by £182 million - a 45 per cent reduction. Covid 19 has just exacerbated an inherent dilemma in the bus industry and that is how to support a decent level of bus service provision without recourse to considerable sums of public money.

Passengers are now beginning to return to buses, but farebox revenue, even with revenue support for concessionary fares, is unlikely to match pre Covid levels. This points to a need for sustained finance if the current level of bus services, let alone any enhancements, is to be maintained. The government’s answer to this is the National Bus Strategy, loudly proclaimed under the banner of ‘Bus Back Better’. The onus has been put on local authorities and bus operators to get together to sort out partnership plans for bus service provision and improvements, and the government’s timetable for this is tight and punishing. All this has been thrown at the poor local authorities without any guidance and at a time when they are still reeling from Covid and its financial implications. It is not a bit of wonder local authorities are in confusion and dire straights. Already the worries and comments are beginning to emerge and the biggest worry is that local authorities are being forced into revenue risk partnerships without any guarantee of future government funding. As one local authority spokesman proffered: Conditions should be decided nationally and any risk borne by local authorities must be back-stopped by the Government.

All this is taking place in the continued framework of deregulation with the split of services between commercial and supported. This twin problem of continued deregulation and lack of long term funding is set to impact most significantly on rural bus services. It is telling that Baroness Vere, minister for buses, has given a very negative response to the call for protection and improvement to rural bus transport from such well known organisations such as the CPRE and the WI.

It would appear that the faith of the government and the Baroness has been put firmly in Demand Responsive Transport for rural areas. Perhaps they have not looked at the figures, which show a large range of subsidy per passenger of between £5 and £20 for DRT schemes. The average subsidy per passenger for rural bus services in Herefordshire £2.14. Value for money seems to have been ignored.

In his introduction to the Bus Back Better document the prime minister proudly proclaimed: The industry has had almost £1bn in emergency funding, and will need significant public support for some time to come. The deal for operators is that we will give you that support, and the measures to unstick traffic that you have wanted for years – but in return, we need your cooperation and partnership to deliver the policies in this strategy. How far will £3bn go nationally?

We wait with baited breath to see if the operators cooperate or will deregulation just continue to trundle along with the operators holding a pistol to the heads of the local authorities, this time with government backing. We might yet be in a situation of Bus Back Worse.

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