Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper has hinted that further revenue support for bus services in England may be provided beyond the current end date for Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) of March 2023.
Speaking before the Transport Select Committee on 7 December, Mr Harper said that the Department for Transport (DfT) has been “specifically focused” on supporting buses since the pandemic. Acknowledging BRG’s scheduled end date, Mr Harper adds that he wishes to “make sure” that the government continues doing that.
DfT staff have been tasked with working out “the right level of support the Department needs to continue providing… and what things we need to continue doing,” although Mr Harper adds that such a statement should not be read as an indicator of plans. However, he adds that he is “very conscious that we will need to say more about buses in the near future” once the Department’s Autumn Statement settlement has been worked through.
Adding weight to the hint that funding may be continued, a report to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) Transport Committee on 14 December states that a decision by ministers on such an extension is expected in the new year. “If government maintains the Grant, it may ask local transport authorities (LTAs) to maintain [their] level of spend on buses,” the WYCA report adds.
When questioned on his “vision for the future of buses” by Stoke-on-Trent South MP Jack Brereton, Mr Harper told the Committee that he is “very conscious” of the challenges faced by the industry, particularly for the delivery of rural services.
In a point that will draw a mixed response from the industry, the Secretary of State pointed to demand responsive transport as an example of how services can be delivered more sustainably.
“I am very supportive of buses. I am very supportive of us looking at how we can grow bus ridership,” Mr Harper says.
He adds that the government will support LTAs with “ambitious plans” to build usage. That is despite more than half of Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) submissions having gone unfunded thus far.
Nevertheless, in response to West Dorset MP Chris Loder, Mr Harper acknowledged that the first round of BSIP allocations left “a lot of unfulfilled demand” from LTAs that had “quite ambitious plans for bus service improvement… that we could not fund.”
DfT recently asked travel concession authorities in England to continue ENCTS reimbursement at pre-pandemic levels in the 2023/24 financial year, but it has no means to compel them to do so.
Full transcription of Mr Harper’s session in front of the Committee downloadable here.