Long-term bus funding: Strings attached if it arrives

Long term bus funding is industry priority

What will 2023 hold for the bus industry? The primary hope must surely be that whatever decisions governments take, principally in relation to any ongoing funding, provide much greater long-term certainty for the sector than we have experienced since the pandemic struck.

Welcome as Bus Recovery Grant in England and other schemes in Scotland and Wales have been, the short-term nature of each funding package has not really given the industry and local transport authorities (LTAs) much certainty, surely making any long-term planning difficult, if not impossible.

In England, as we all know, current funding runs out at the end of March, so ministers need to inform the industry pretty sharpish if operators are not to start the process of deregistering any number of services from the beginning of April.

Harper’s hints at further bus funding in England

When the new Secretary of State, Mark Harper, appeared before the Transport Select Committee on 7 December 2022, he hinted that further support would be forthcoming. But that needs to be more than just another six-month sticking plaster.

It needs to be a long-term, sustained support package. However, I can see that if there are to be longer-term commitments to support the industry, then they should come with a stronger regulatory regime than arguably exists today.

When the private sector enjoyed relative freedom to determine the level of service to be provided, a light touch regulatory regime was entirely appropriate. But with the National Bus Strategy in England and the wider impact of the pandemic, all that has changed.

Deregulated bus market ‘has now gone’

The reality is that the unfettered deregulated market has gone. Private sector operators are no longer free to determine the shape and size of local markets (that is now largely down to LTAs to specify) and are now almost entirely dependent on government subsidy to provide the current level of service.

And, of course, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is now, finally, making progress with its franchising plans. If those prove a success – however “success” is defined – then I have a hunch that other authorities, certainly some of the other Combined Authorities in England, may well follow suit.

I suppose that in a franchised environment, there will be a high degree of regulation or enforcement by the relevant franchising authority. But if operators are to benefit from a longer-term funding support package where franchising is not in place, then I can see that a stronger regulatory regime may well be justified.

Government support comes with strings attached. What shape or form that stronger regulatory regime might take is not really for me to say – but it is something that I might give some thought to. Today, the regulatory regime via the Traffic Commissioners is pretty light touch, and I wonder if it is still really fit for purpose in today’s new world.

Labour whitewash at next General Election – or not?

From a broader political perspective, what can we expect in 2023? On the surface, things look unremittingly grim for the Conservatives, with Labour enjoying consistent leads in opinion polls of around 20%. But the headline polling figures can be misleading.

A significant proportion of those polled – some 25% – say that they do not know how they will vote at the next general election. Pollsters are saying that most of these ‘don’t knows’ can be expected to vote Conservative based on their profiles (age, background, etc).

Moreover, one or two polls have indicated that while 40% of those who voted Conservative at the last election in 2019 have said that they will not vote Conservative at the next election, only 9% of this 40% have said that they would vote Labour. So Labour’s poll lead feels very soft.

The local elections in May might give us a better indication of the electorate’s mood. But even so, it will still be the best part of 18 months or so before the next general election, expected in late summer or early autumn 2024. There is thus plenty of time for the current dire outlook for the Conservatives to improve.

Economists are saying that the rate of inflation has peaked and will start to come down, so the cost-of-living crisis should start to ease. Economic commentators are also hinting at the first modest signs of economic recovery come the spring or summer, and we can expect Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to use his next Budget, now set for 15 March, to offer some positive news in terms of economic recovery and tax cuts before the election.

Consider the pitch for long-term bus funding

There is little doubt that, today, the Conservatives look set to lose the next general election. But the defeat may not be as catastrophic as current polls suggest. If a week is a long time in politics, then 18 months is a lifetime. Much can yet happen to improve Conservative fortunes.

Even so, there is also a view around that it would be in the best interests of the Conservative party to spend a period of time in opposition in order to renew and reinvigorate, and to recharge. Either way, election planning will be starting in earnest over the course of the next few weeks, and party minds will be turning to manifestos.

The bus industry needs to start to work out what its ‘pitch’ is to the main political parties. With the Conservative government having overseen the death of deregulation in England, the pitch to both Labour and the Conservatives could well be very similar, strange as that may sound.

Actually, that takes me back to my opening point. The pitch is really quite simple given today’s new world post-pandemic: “Just give bus a long-term funding package so we can plan with certainty.”

2023 is not going to be a bed of roses by any stretch of the imagination. But my hunch is that come the summer, it is going to start to feel a lot better than it did during much of 2022. Happy New Year!