‘£3bn for bus improvement in England is inadequate’

Is bus improvement funding made available by the Treasure enough?

So, the Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) in England are all in, although I don’t know if every single local transport authority (LTA) actually bothered to submit one.

After all, for some authorities, the time and effort, let alone the cost, of preparing a BSIP might not be worth it, especially as there must be a real risk, if not a racing certainty, that the Department for Transport (DfT) will not allocate all of the funding that any BSIP requires for it to be delivered as the LTA would want; and if the quality of bus services is already satisfactory, even if not perfect, then why bother?

It would be interesting to know how much funding is required to fulfil all the BSIPs as submitted, compared to the £3bn that is available. I suspect that there will be a big difference between the two numbers. Perhaps we will never know.

£3bn for buses in England ‘is inadequate’

But I believe, for example, that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has submitted a plan that requires funding support of £630m until 2024/25.

If other Combined Authorities are bidding for funding in the same ballpark, then it is self-evident that £3bn is going to be woefully inadequate. I fear that there could be some very disappointed LTAs when DfT decides how the £3bn will be allocated.

The Chancellor’s Budget and Spending Review on 27 October certainly didn’t offer up any additional cash to implement the National Bus Strategy, as a quick read of the Treasury Red Book will confirm. The Chancellor was happy to throw extra money at various sacred cows, not least the NHS, but additional funding for buses – indeed, public transport generally – was in short supply.

To be fair to him, there was a bit of extra cash for some rail, tram and cycle schemes, with the Chancellor happily announcing funding of £6.9bn for various projects around the country days in advance of the Budget itself. But only around £1.5bn of that was actually new money, with the rest having been announced in earlier Budgets.

I confess to being slightly puzzled by the modern-day trend of announcing or leaking details of set piece parliamentary events such as the Budget and the Queen’s Speech days in advance. I am not entirely clear what it achieves. Gone are the days when that would have resulted in ministerial resignations or sackings.

Much was made of the fact that every department except the Ministry of Defence got extra cash, amounting to £150bn over the spending review period. That is certainly true. But when you look at the settlement for DfT, I question how generous it really was.

Departmental budget not so generous after all

At one level, the figures do look good, even generous, with a 7.8% increase in DfT’s resource Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) between 2019/20 and 2024/25 and a 4.9% increase in its capital DEL over the same period. But the increase from this year to 2024/25 is not so generous.

The Department’s resource DEL increases by just £1.3bn from 2021/22 to 2024/25 and its capital DEL increases by just £1.7bn over the same period. It is only by going back to 2019/20 that you can claim a bigger percentage increase to 2024/25, which is hardly surprising. So the actual increase over the period of the Spending Review is way less generous than the Treasury Red Book would have us believe, and the increase could easily be eroded if various forecasts go the wrong way, such as inflation.

Overall, it was a pretty strange Budget for a Conservative Party that has historically prided itself on being a low tax, small state party. We now have the highest overall level of taxation since the 1950s and the highest level of spending since the 1970s.

I cannot help but feel that Rishi Sunak was decidedly uncomfortable about the Budget, which I suspect was driven as much by Number 10 as the Treasury – hence his statement at the end of his Budget speech that “government should have limits” and that “by the end of this Parliament, I want taxes to be going down.”

Does Budget have Boris’s fingerprints all over it?

But whether it was the Prime Minister’s fingerprints that were all over this Budget or not, the fact of the matter is that the Conservative Party has, for now, parked its tank firmly on Labour’s lawn. Actually, it’s not a single tank. It’s a battalion of them.

It is not for me to say whether the government’s strategy is right or wrong, or good or bad. But it seems that if Rishi Sunak does not deliver on his promise to cut taxes before the end of this

Parliament then traditional Conservatives are going to start to become pretty restless. And it will beg the question: Why vote Conservative if you get levels of taxation and public spending normally associated with the Labour Party?

The pandemic necessitated unprecedented levels of state intervention and spending, of course, but as that phase eases and we return to a more normal way of life, one might have expected a Conservative government to start to reign in the levels of spending that have increased our national debt to over £2tn. Strange political times indeed.

Challenge in meeting COP26 expectations

As I write, the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow is in full swing. Whether the event is the rip-roaring success that Boris Johnson would want remains to be seen.

Yes, there will be some positive announcements and world leaders will doubtless claim success. But with China, Russia and India seemingly less than committed to the pace of achieving net zero than Boris would wish, it is hard to see how COP26 can live up to the expectations that were set.