‘Sector needs vision beyond National Bus Strategy’: SMMT

The recent publication of the long-awaited National Bus Strategy for England is welcome news, providing much clarity for a beleaguered sector. However, the proof will be in the pudding as we wait for strategy to be translated into tangible policy that can address the industry’s key concerns, says Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) CV Section Manager Nigel Base.

The COVID effect and the National Bus Strategy 

For over a year now, bus operators and manufacturers have struggled with depleted passenger numbers and order books with little to no support. To use a familiar analogy, it seems we’ve been waiting so long at the stop for the bus to arrive that we’ve gone from a light drizzle of a sector coping with inconsistent funding and decreasing ridership, to the full on torrential downpour of a pandemic and plunging passenger numbers.

So after persistent campaigning and conversations with government, we’re glad to have our sector put back on the priority list. We now have a plan in Bus Back Better that has the potential to boost revenue for operators, bring passengers back to buses, boost manufacturing, and which offers an opportunity for an essential sector to play its part in decarbonising the economy.

However, crucial to the execution of this vision will be the delivery of tangible policy that actually helps instil confidence in operators, manufacturers and passengers alike.

Boris’s £3bn and the Bus Strategy: It’s all in the timing

It’s one thing to have £3bn in funding pledged to us in the strategy – but the key question is when the industry will be able see it. The pandemic has hit both coach and bus manufacturers and, importantly, their integrated supply chains, as social distancing measures and regional and national lockdowns shrunk the market.

SMMT CV Section Manager on the National Bus Strategy
SMMT CV Section Manager Nigel Base

The UK is a bedrock for manufacturing with international experience and ambitions, but if demand remains low for another six months or a year, we risk damaging both the long-term prospects and the UK’s position as global leader.

While we recognise that government finances and the entire economy are stretched like never before, the sector cannot and must not have to wait even longer for the funding to be made available. It needs to be now, not next year.

With lockdowns hopefully lifting over the coming months, investing now gives us a chance to put buses back in the public’s mind before they risk forgetting us forever. It’s hard to believe but it’s been over a year since the Prime Minister first promised us 4,000 new zero emission buses.

We cannot wait another year for these to be delivered; this pledge must be translated into orders so that investment in developing these new technologies stays in the UK.

Infrastructure to build back greener: Uplift required

Although every manufacturer already builds ultra-low- and zero-emission buses, we need a significant uplift in planning and infrastructure to accommodate new fleets of battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell-electric buses, if we are to roll out the volumes required to drive change.

That means a cohesive approach to charging and refuelling, one that takes into account both urban and rural environments and which offers equal opportunity for fleet renewal in all areas of the country.

SMMT CV Section Manager Nigel Base on the National Bus Strategy
Policies in the National Bus Strategy should give equal opportunity for fleet replacement in all areas of the country, says SMMT’s Nigel Base

The average lead-time for a new coach or bus is six to nine months, with similar timings for new charging or refuelling stations.

If we want to drive fleet renewal, we need to gather all stakeholders at the table to start planning without further delay. Putting these plans into actions is the best way to demonstrate steadfast commitment to decarbonisation.

As only around 2% of England’s bus fleet is fully zero-emission today, with most of these vehicles either diesel-electric hybrid or gas-powered, fleet renewal that puts more of the latest, greenest buses on the road is essential for delivering shared joint green ambitions in the year the UK hosts the COP26 climate change conference.

Government must not leave the coach sector behind

With people’s livelihoods on the line, it’s important to remember that the National Bus Strategy, although ambitious and much-needed, does not mention the coach industry, which also faces a crisis deepened by more than a year of lockdown restrictions.

The UK coach sector is made up of some 3,000 operators, mostly family-run businesses that have had to stop operations entirely for most of 2020. The coach industry provides jobs to some 42,000 workers, contributing £14bn a year to British tourism; nationwide recovery must include a plan for this sector too.

A long Road to Zero lies ahead 

We have a map with a destination. Now we need a route, so that bold ideas are turned into tangible results that boost business for operators and manufacturers alike while driving sustainable, accessible mobility for all.

If we are to continue to attract investment in a highly competitive international market, as well as keeping us on track to meet our joint net zero goals, we need to view this strategy as a stepping stone to something bigger. SMMT will continue to work with government and all stakeholders to ensure Bus Back Better can deliver for the coach and bus sector.

To learn more about the SMMT and its members, please visit www.smmt.co.uk