Labour’s recent announcement on buses was about who controls the levers. There was no mention of money or other support
Last week’s policy announcement from the Labour party on buses means both main parties are now devoting time and space to this key method of public transport. This is very welcome, not least because until recently, the bus had not been anywhere near the political centre stage for decades.
When I was buses minister about 10 years ago, I had a series of initiatives I wanted to reveal through an oral statement to MPs and was backed by the then transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin. But I was blocked by the then Leader of the House, George Young, who told me buses were not important enough to merit the allocation of parliamentary time.
How attitudes change, and for the better. The Conservatives embraced the idea of a National Bus Strategy, with buses minister Charlotte Vere promising a new era for buses. She appeared on the front of Passenger Transport in January 2020 promising that that year would be “transformational” for the bus. The next month, she enthused that Britain was living in “the golden age of the bus”.
The then prime minister – there have been so many recently but I mean Boris Johnson – took a personal interest and pledged £5bn over five years to boost bus services. He even alleged he was making a model of a bus in his spare time, though many of us thought he might be referring to making a different sort of model.
But then Covid struck, and 2020 did indeed prove transformational for buses, but not in a good way. The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men went down the plughole (sorry, not quite the Robert Burns quote). A tragedy, because I thought that perhaps for the first time ever, the Tories were genuine and enthusiastic in their commitment to transforming bus services.
As it was of course, almost overnight it became a matter of keeping the show on the road, which the government to their credit did, and indeed are still doing, at least until the end of June when the emergency support funding comes to an end.
Meanwhile, the light at the end of the tunnel has proved to be a will o’ the wisp. Bus passenger numbers, and bus mileage figures, both in steady decline for years before Covid, have fallen sharply since Covid with recovery sluggish at best.
Bus route numbers, as measured by the Traffic Commissioner, fell from 16,323 in 2019/20 to 10,941 in 2021/22. Mileage is down from 1,238 million in 2016 to 1,063 million in 2021/22. This is freefall territory.
In urban areas, this has led to reduced frequencies. In rural areas, it has meant the withdrawal of entire services and the removal of whole areas from the bus map
In urban areas, this has led to reduced frequencies. In rural areas, it has meant the withdrawal of entire services and the removal of whole areas from the bus map.
Some of this looks irreversible. Back in July 2020, Stagecoach predicted: “We expect a lasting effect of the Covid-19 pandemic to travel patterns with an acceleration in trends of increased working from home, shopping from home, telemedicine and home education.”
They were not wrong. Supermarket vans, unseen before the pandemic, now regularly trundle up and down my street serving people who before would have been on the bus to the shops.
So, what to do? The Conservatives in government have indicated a longer term solution will shortly be revealed, but the shape of that is not yet clear. Indeed, I don’t think it is yet clear to the Department for Transport itself. It seems certain though to accept that some contraction is here to stay.
At least, at long last, we now have progress on the Bus Centre of Excellence, though whether it will be enough to deal with the bus black holes that have opened up around the country is debatable.
And a week ago we had what was billed as a major announcement from Labour, still on course to be the next government if the polls are to be believed, though I notice the polls are tightening and we could be in for a re-run of 1992 rather than 1997 unless Keir Starmer can up his game.
Labour’s announcement, once you get past the fanfare, turns out to be about who controls the levers
Labour’s announcement, once you get past the fanfare, turns out to be about who controls the levers. It centres on a pledge to “reform the country’s broken bus system”. The method is to “hand power and control to local communities”.
It is not clear what exactly constitutes a local community, though it would appear that existing local transport authorities are to be the vehicle for this change.
According to the Labour press release, the party would extend the opportunity to franchise bus services, presently only available to metro mayors, to all areas in England.
Of course so far, even most metro mayors have not elected to go down the franchising route, put off by the cost and bureaucratic hurdles and perhaps waiting to see the result of the Manchester process, so in itself simply extending the power to franchise to others will achieve very little.
With that in mind no doubt, Labour also undertake to simplify the process to enable franchising to be adopted, with smaller authorities being offered help and advice from the DfT to take matters forward.
The release also promises to end the legal ban on municipal bus ownership, which to my mind was always a dogmatic rather than logical ban, dating from the time of Nicholas Ridley and his zealot colleagues in the 1980s whose vision for local authorities was that they would meet once a year to hand out contracts for everything. Certainly places like Nottingham have demonstrated not just the value of a municipal bus service but also one that happily co-exists with private sector operators like Trentbarton.
So the key question is: will this vision, if implemented, prove a renaissance for the bus?
It is at best questionable. The underlying assumption appears to be that a change of control, from commercial bus operators to local authorities, will in itself bring about that renaissance.
In support of that, the Labour release points out while the reduction in bus mileage from 2016/17 to 2021/22 has varied between 24% in the East of England and 11.1% in the South West, London as the only presently franchised area showed a drop of just 4%.
The presence or otherwise of a franchise model is of course but one variant. One other huge variant is the amount of public money invested in bus services, which in London far outstrips that of anywhere else in the country.
Nowhere in the Labour release does it talk of money, whether for local transport authorities or otherwise. Nor does it refer to measures the industry is keen on and which make a real difference on the ground
Nowhere in the Labour release does it talk of money, whether for local transport authorities or otherwise. Nor does it refer to measures the industry is keen on and which make a real difference on the ground, such as the roll-out of bus lanes or measures to disincentivise the car such as Nottingham’s workplace charging scheme, or higher car park charges in general.
Perhaps there is more to come on bus policy from Labour but on its own, inviting cash-strapped local authorities, who in many cases no longer have the capacity to take on big challenges, to go down the franchising route does not look likely to bear much fruit.
Other organisations have put forward their own ideas. CPRE have blithely called for an hourly all-day bus service for every village with 200 or more inhabitants. Have they any idea how much this would cost? And have they made any estimate of how many people would actually use such services? Easy headlines do not a transport policy make. Stick to topics you understand, lads.
I was, on the other hand, rather taken by some of the suggestions made by ALBUM’s chair, Bill Hiron, in The Album Report 2023.
One called for school start and finish times to be staggered to ease congestion, another for road user charging to be introduced, and a third for all new development over a certain size to contribute to improved public transport provision, which seems both sensible and fair.
To this list might be added a rejigging of responsibilities within central government. It makes no sense that local authorities receive some money for buses from the DfT, normally project-based and ringfenced, while the Levelling Up department provides an amount in the general grant to council’s ostensibly for buses, an amount that is opaque in its quantity and not ringfenced. There are also various city deals and the like which also provide bus money.
There is a good case for transferring all responsibility for bus funding to the DfT and indeed making it all ring-fenced. The problem at the moment is that local councils are so short of cash that they struggle to meet their statutory obligations, and any money nominally provided for non-statutory services like buses simply gets swallowed up by adult social care, children’s services and the like. I have written to the prime minister to make the case for this machinery of government change.
One thing is clear. Without radical intervention, bus services will not get back to anywhere near pre-Covid levels. As yet, nothing from either the Conservatives or Labour suggests that radical action is on the agenda.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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