• Gareth Davies

From Elation into the Pits

Elation: There was great elation when the Prime Minister announced Bus Back Better - A National Bus Strategy for England - in early 2021. There was money, there was vision and there was the much- championed voluntary partnerships between bus operators and Local Transport Authorities (LTA).

Local Authorities pulled the stops out to complete Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIP) required by the government to secure funding. During the heady days of 2021 the LTAs even managed to elicit letters from bus operators in full support of partnerships.

Then there was silence and the Treasury was at work. In his autumn 2021 spending review the Chancellor prepared the way for a reduction in spending on buses by ending Covid relief for buses from the end of March 2022. However, the LTAs still hoped the prime minister would honour his commitment to £3bn funding for Bus Back Better. In early 2022 that hope was shattered by the Treasury announcement that the Bus Back Better fund was to be cut by half. With the LTA bids for funds totalling over £7bn and the announced drop of funding to £1.3bn, the figures now did just not add up for the future of buses.

The LTAs understandably were perturbed, some were downright angry at being taken in by the government. Northern England could see the Levelling Up agenda flying out of the window. There was worse, it was leaked that the Government counted the money provided to keep services running during the pandemic as part of the £3bn Bus Back Better which in effect reduced this fund even further.

It was the bus operators that were the first to react to the government action. They immediately started to plan their business post March 2022 and those plans, in a commercial world, include a considerable downscaling of bus networks and the abandonment of unremunerative and financially marginal services. Under the 1986 Bus Deregulation Act, these services were then to be pushed onto the LTAs to decide if they wanted to support them financially. But the local authorities, consistently squeezed for money by government over the last decade, have not got the money to support bus services.

Into the Pits: The headlines from the Local Government Association are stark.

Councils have warned that nearly a third of bus services will be axed unless emergency funding is extended beyond the end of March.

In October 2021 Stagecoach West wrote to Herefordshire Council, the content of which appear publicly in the Herefordshire BSIP. It states:

Stagecoach has a long history of working with Herefordshire Council on bus services in the region, both commercial and subsidy-supported...Herefordshire Council has remained supportive of and receptive to bus operators throughout the BSIP process and we look forward to entering into a formal Enhanced Partnership in due course.

Then Stagecoach announce the axing of Service 132 Ledbury - Gloucester from the end of February. No partnership discussion on a possible joint solution. No consideration of the travelling public. No thought about putting more cars on the road. No promotion of the service. Just a stark commercial decision in the light of government U-turns on the future of buses.

The 132 service is just the start.

Bus Back Better R.I.P – Bus Back Worse has arrived

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