West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) is unable to guarantee ENCTS payments in August at pre-COVID-19 levels. Clarity is required on emergency government funding before it can do so. That is a worrying development.
The worst-case scenario is that ENCTS reimbursements from WYCA in August will be based on actual passenger numbers. If that happens it will leave holes in operators’ finances. But the premise of the Coronavirus Bus Services Support Grant is that it insulates operators from making a loss (or a profit). The slack may thus be picked up by the government. Won’t it?
This development hints at two things. One is that money is starting to run out for some local authorities (LAs). Second is that LAs may have decided not to dip into reserves to continue payments that were “urged” – but not directed – when the pandemic broke.
A further possibility is that LAs are conserving funds ahead of a greater need for dedicated home-to-school transport in the coming academic year.
The wider picture is clear. Strategic thinking is required to define how bus services and home-to-school transport will be supported and paid for respectively during the recovery period. LAs have seen incomes drop, in some cases significantly. The pressure on their outgoings has grown no lighter. They cannot join all the dots without government backing.
For parts of the bus sector, the medium-term looks equally difficult. Revenue support will end at some point, but passenger numbers are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future. One large group has suggested that mileage could drop to 70-80% of pre-crisis levels in the 2021/22 financial year.
Plans for zero-emission buses over the coming years are laudable. But the shorter-term priority should instead be ensuring that the routes they will serve are still here come 2022.