In March 2021, Boris Johnson unveiled the National Bus Strategy (NBS), detailing ambitions to make buses in England outside London work better for passengers, as first outlined in 2020. Those ambitions, supported by £3bn of funding, included the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses (ZEBs) by 2025, higher frequency services and simpler fares.
The much-anticipated strategy hailed a new era for the bus. So it came as a shock the industry more recently when rumours began to swirl that funding had been halved. From the sunlit uplands of Bus Back Better and all its promises to the grey skies of buses being too often overlooked and underfunded, already decimated by the pandemic and struggling to recovery. The picture seemed gloomy.
Has pro-bus Boris gone back on his promises? The devil is in the detail.
ZEBS are prominent among bus funding for England
Delivery of the 4,000 ZEBs has begun in earnest, albeit with a bit of “head scratching and riddle solving” associated with the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) scheme. The Autumn Spending Review in 2021 saw an additional £355m added to the pot, leaving £525m for ZEBs in 2020-25. So far, only £70.8m has been allocated via the ZEBRA ‘fast track’, with £200m to be allocated via its ‘standard track’ by March.
The NBS also committed to improving bus services across England outside London, highlighting the need for operators and local transport authorities (LTAs) to work more closely to offer better services. Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) were designed to achieve that, delivered through either Enhanced Partnerships or franchising
2021 budget allocation to BSIPs ‘a good start’
In the 2021 Budget, £1.2bn was set aside for BSIPs. The Confederation of Passenger Transport has suggested that at least £7bn will be required to make good on all BSIP proposals, but in the meantime, £1.2bn is a good start.
And there is the small matter of the pandemic. At the height of the crisis, with operators on their knees because of non-existent patronage, government introduced the COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant (CBSSG) to keep the industry afloat. In July 2021, Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced a further £226.5m in financial support for the bus sector to succeed CBSSG, which since March 2020 had provided up to £1.4bn to operators and LTAs.
It is clear that government funding for buses has already in fact exceeded the £3bn promises in the NBS. Admittedly, a significant proportion of that was spent propping up the industry in unprecedented times. But, at a time when investment in new vehicles was low and operations were somewhat curtailed, it could be argued that bus operators never had such generous public funding (and especially so if you are a coach operator!)
Strong messaging needed to undo previous damage
With funding for ZEBs guaranteed until 2025, £1.2bn supporting BSIPs and the introduction of the 22p per km Bus Service Operators Grant ZEB uplift from April, things might not look so gloomy after all, for bus operators and passengers alike.
That being said, government must come out with a strong and clear message to restore confidence in public transport. Without an extension to Bus Recovery Grant, there is a risk that the NBS will have little lasting effect on the overall state of bus services in England.