UK national bus strategy: beyond deregulation

The bus strategy will force local authorities and bus operators to work together in enhanced partnerships or franchising systems in order to access new funding.

The UK government’s long-awaited bus strategy has been published, alongside a claim that £3billion of investment will see passengers across England benefiting from more frequent, more reliable, easier to use and understand, better coordinated and cheaper bus services. 

The language in the strategy echoes the government’s ‘levelling up agenda’ and commits to a plan to encourage more people to use the bus, rather than the car, as the economy is rebuilt following the pandemic. 

The key objectives are presented as simpler fares with daily price caps and more services at off-peak times. And in a line that could have been cut directly from countless previous transport policies, including even John Prescott’s plans at the birth of new Labour, our bus-fancying prime minister has set himself the aim of delivering “integrated services and ticketing across all modes”. 

But beneath the headlines is potentially the effective end of the deregulated system outside London, and shortly after its publication, the Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham announced that he is going to proceed with his bus franchising plans for the region.

Prime minister Boris Johnson says: “As we build back from the pandemic, better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling-up. 

“Just as they did in London, our reforms will make buses the transport of choice, reducing the number of car journeys and improving quality of life for millions.”  

“The fragmented, fully-commercialised market which has operated outside London since 1986 will end. We want to see operators and local councils enter into a statutory “enhanced partnership” or franchising agreements to receive the new funding and deliver the improvements.

“We expect to see local authorities and operators working together to deliver bus services that are so frequent that passengers can just ‘turn up and go’ – no longer needing to rely on a traditional timetable and having the confidence they won’t wait more than a few minutes.”

One element that will please operators is a promise of hundreds of miles of new bus lanes, although while that sounds like a lot, spread across England it may not add up to much, but it should, as the government suggests, help make journeys quicker and more reliable, getting people out of their cars, reducing pollution and operating costs.

The previous commitment to deliver 4,000 new electric or hydrogen buses to provide clean, quiet, zero-emission travel is reaffirmed, although there is now a pledge to see these as British-built which could be a challenge to achieve unless there are some significant shifts in the manufacturing base, although it is anticipated that this will be the subject of much fudging in terms of the origin of a bus’ components and critical technology. 

Putting the wheels on the bus in a UK factory does not make it a UK-built product.

There is also a strong stick and carrot system on the way with local authorities likely to have to follow the government’s lead to access funding streams.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps, says: “The strategy we’re unveiling will completely overhaul services, ensuring we build back better from the pandemic. Key to it is the new deal it offers to councils – we will provide unprecedented funding, but we need councils to work closely with operators, and the Government, to develop the services of the future.”

The strategy acknowledges that London-style services aren’t appropriate for all rural and suburban areas and the DfT is also providing £20 million from the Rural Mobility Fund to enable on-demand services to be trialled in areas where a traditional bus service isn’t appropriate.

Industry responses 

As is commonly the outcome, many of the key stakeholders have picked out the elements of the new bus strategy they like for praise, and largely ignored the bits they don’t want.

Martin Griffiths, stagecoach chief executive:

“We welcome the ambition in the government’s new bus strategy. For too long, the power of buses to transform local communities and local people’s lives has been overlooked. 

“As we look to emerge from Covid, we also want to work closely with government on a proactive joint campaign to rebuild consumer confidence in public transport and to promote the wider green credentials of travelling by bus. We look forward to understanding more detail around the government’s plans for the future and its proposed roadmap to bridge from the pandemic to a new era for buses.” 

CPT chief executive Graham Vidler:

“It is great to see government sharing our ambitious plans to deliver more frequent and comprehensive bus networks, building on private sector investment and in collaboration with local authorities. Local targets for passenger growth and quicker journeys will ensure local accountability and a shared commitment to delivering better services for passengers. This should be the focus of everyone involved in delivering bus networks, rather than the distraction of debates over regulatory models which deliver nothing for passengers.”

David Brown, CEO, Go-Ahead Group: 

“It’s the right time to have a national strategy for buses. Bus usage has been falling for seven years and if Britain is serious about becoming a carbon neutral nation, we urgently need to halt that decline and persuade people to leave their cars at home.

“In order to do that, buses need to be quick, reliable and convenient. That means giving more bus priority including precedence for buses at traffic lights and tackling rush hour gridlock.

“People with easy access to public transport have more chance of getting a job, and are much less likely to be socially isolated and lonely. By working in partnership with local authorities, private companies can respond to demand effectively, delivering better services for all.”

Janette Bell, MD, First Bus:

“First Bus welcomes the publication of the National Bus Strategy – we fully support, and are committed to, delivering this exciting, customer-focused vision. Across the UK, we already work closely and effectively with local authorities and the Enhanced Partnership approach will enable us to build on these strong local relationships as we move toward recovery and work to improve customer experience.

“As leaders in sustainable mobility, we embrace the opportunities demonstrated in the National Bus Strategy to accelerate the transition to zero emissions. We are fully aligned with Government’s ambitions for a zero-emission bus fleet and have already committed to this by 2035, and not purchasing any new diesel buses after December 2022.”

Paul O’Neil, MD, Arriva UK Bus:

“We welcome the clear direction from the Government today for the future of bus transport.  We agree that more needs to be done to encourage people to leave their cars at home and turn to public transport, which will help to deliver a green recovery as regional economies build back from Covid. 

“The prioritisation of buses on our roads would be a great step forward to drive better outcomes, along with locally agreed targets for journey times and passenger growth. Arriva brings experience of successful bus partnerships and looks forward to working closely with government and local authorities to help deliver these important ambitions, ensuring a thriving and sustainable bus sector throughout the country.”

RMT general secretary Mick Cash: 

“The strategy appears to lack ambition for addressing the challenges of getting people back onto sustainable public transport following the Covid-19 pandemic. It is vital that the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t push more people into cars, this would increase carbon emissions and worsen public health, but RMT fears the profit driven commercial bus operators are already looking to respond to the pandemic with service cuts. 

“The only way to deliver an effective, integrated, accessible and affordable local bus network is for the government to provide guaranteed ring-fenced national funding for all local authorities to deliver the bus services their communities require via publicly-owned municipal bus operators which recognises and protects the vital role of our essential bus workers who performed so heroically during the pandemic.”

Laura Shoaf, chair, Urban Transport Group:

‘‘We welcome the national bus strategy’s positive and ambitious vision for the future of the bus and its commitment to giving locally accountable transport authorities a key role in determining the future of their local bus services – either through more tightly regulated agreements with existing operators or through the franchising of networks of services.

“The bus strategy needs to be followed by both a streamlining of the legislation, so we can move more quickly to introduce franchising or enhanced partnerships, as well as by simpler, enhanced and devolved bus funding for transport authorities so we can move rapidly to support better bus networks and cheaper fares.”