‘All bus passengers in England should benefit from BSIPs’

BSIPs in England should benefit all bus passengers, says CPT's Graham Vidler

For bus operators and councils throughout England, last month’s Spending Review was a great example of what behavioural economists call ‘anchoring’. Anchoring is the trait by which we tend to hold on to the first piece of information we hear on a subject and evaluate the eventual outcome against that initial anchor.

So having been told repeatedly that the National Bus Strategy for England would be backed by £3bn of investment, it’s no surprise that that is the number we have all been evaluating it against.

What we saw in terms of new money was £1.2bn to help fund the measures set out in Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs), probably around £500-600m to deliver improved bus services as part of City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements, and £355m to support the introduction of zero-emission buses. Impressive sums, but well short of that £3bn anchor. Which provides the government with a tricky task ahead in allocating the available funding across competing BSIPs.

It is clear from a cursory glance at those BSIPs that even £3bn would not have been anywhere near enough to fund the scale of ambition that has been catalysed by the National Bus Strategy. So how best to move forward, given the mismatch between the available funding and the level of ambition? We think there are three things that the government should be prioritising.

First, passengers in every single part of the country should benefit from at least some improvements next year. That means ensuring that all areas have funding from April 2022 to support services, to that nowhere goes backwards in its bus provision.

It should also mean a national approach to delivering multi-operator, price capped ticketing across the country, a feature of almost every BSIP and one that can be delivered more cost-effectively if done once.

Second, there will need to be a focus on achieving genuine transformation, led by investment in bus priority, in a relatively small number if places. The alternative is spreading the funds so thinly that there is no meaningful impact on bus services anywhere. Access to their individual five-year funding settlements means that the city regions will be well placed for transformation; the allocation of funding in response to BSIPs must ensure that other, smaller towns and cities have this opportunity too.

Third, more funding will help. It is therefore vital that the Department for Transport does not just promote awareness of alternative streams, such as the Levelling Up Fund, but ensure that bus is prioritised within them.

Anchors are hard to leave behind. But now is the time to think not of how much short of £3bn the Spending Review delivered, but of how much more than zero is available to support change for passengers across the country.