Written evidence submitted by Peter Travis, Chair, Somerset Bus User
and Stakeholder Group (BUS0034)
1 Bus Back Better was launched in March 2021.
It was the “long-term strategy for buses in England, outside London” and it came with “£3bn of new funding to level up buses across England towards London standards”. (P4 Bus Back Better).
It was a much acclaimed and a widely welcomed Government initiative.
2 Launched in the height of Covid, the March 2021 Bus Back Better paper acknowledged that
“Our job has changed because of Covid. In some ways it is harder. Bus use has dropped, though by less than on the railways. In some ways it is easier. The industry has had almost £1bn in emergency funding and will need significant public support for some time to come. The deal for operators is that we will give you that support, and the measures to unstick traffic that you have wanted for years – but in return, we need your cooperation and partnership to deliver the policies in this strategy.” (P5)
But despite paying out £1billion in funding through to March 202i via the COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG), it is important to note in the Bus Back Better document published in March 2021, funding was said to be £3 billion in order to transform bus services across England outside of London. Nothing was said in March 2021 that the £3 billion would be depleted by CBSSG Grant funding).
So throughout much of 2021, no mention was made of bus funding being reduced because of CBSSG payments, that decision only emerged in Autumn 2021 by which time most BSIP bids had been finalised.
Now it is clear that the £3 billion promised in March 2021 to transform buses has been reduced by nearly two thirds because the CBSSG and Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) funding of buses.
(It is important to note that, unlike with Covid funding for buses, the far larger funding required to maintain rail services during Covid was not taken from funding pots already established to fund rail improvements.)
3 In March 2021, when Bus Back Better was launched with the promise of £3 billion of funding, ‘ambitious’ was the Government’s guiding principle for Bus Back Better.
It was repeated time and time again in the Government’s guidelines as the quotes below from ‘Bus Back Better’ demonstrate:
“LTAs in such places will be expected to implement ambition bus priority schemes and draw up ambitious Bus Service Improvement Plans.” P13
“LTAs will be given new powers to enforce traffic regulations. They will be expected to promote bus reliability, and to implement ambitious bus priority schemes, to receive new funding. “ P30
“By the end of October 2021, we expect all LTAs to publish a local Bus Service Improvement Plan. These new plans must set out how
they will use their Enhanced Partnership or franchising scheme to deliver an ambitious vision for travel by bus, meeting the goals and expectations in this strategy and driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want in their area.” P39
“We particularly encourage ambitious Bus Service Improvement Plans in these types of (rural) places” P47
“At a local level we will expect every LTA that wishes to receive funding from the Department for local transport projects to develop ambitious strategies, targets and measures for cutting carbon from transport in their area.” P75
Accordingly, LTAs across submitted ‘ambitious’ Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) believing that they were bidding for funding from a pot of £3 billion.
LTAs did as they were requested and submitted ‘ambitious’ bids reportedly for £8 billions of BSIP funding, so nearly 3 times the original funding and nearly 8 times the much-reduced funding ... it also suggests the Government encouraged far more ambitious BSIPs than they were ever going to be able to fund. Were LTAs misled or just misguided?
4 That was certainly the case here in Somerset where Somerset County Council submitted a BSIP bid for £163 million, a bid the officers of Somerset County Council had developed in conjunction with consultants, WSP.
Somerset County Council had followed Government guidance and Somerset County Council described their bid as:
“An ambitious blue-print to transform bus travel and make a massive contribution to tackling climate change was approved by Somerset County Council’s cabinet today (Wednesday 20 October).
Somerset’s Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) drafted in partnership with local operators sets out a radical overhaul of services in the county and is being submitted as the bid for a share of a £3 billion funding pot made available under the Government’s ‘Bus Back Better’ initiative
The aim is to make bus services greener, more attractive, more affordable, easier to use, as well as faster and more reliable, and it forms an integral part of the Somerset’s Climate Emergency Strategy by getting more people out of cars and onto public transport.”
“Council sets out £163 million green route map for better bus services”
Press Release by Somerset County Council 20 October 2021
5 Somerset had every reason to submit an ‘ambitious’ BSIP:
6 Rural bus services are at much greater risk as the economics of running bus services in the rural counties of England is far more challenging than in urban areas given the greater concentrations of population in towns and cities, usually shorter journeys and much shorter distances they have to travel between bus stops.
Also many bus users, again especially in the rural counties, because of their concerns over Covid prompted by Government messaging switched from public transport (buses and trains) and bought a car to travel to work. Because of longer commuting distances, active travel is often not an option for people in rural areas. There is now an understandable reluctance not to abandon recently acquired cars and switch back immediately to buses.
There is perhaps a need to address the low cost of travelling and car parking in urban areas given the environment and pollution consequences of this greater use of car travel, however politically difficult such actions might be.
7 There is also a need for a messaging campaign advocating the environmental arguments of bus (and train) travel to counter the Government messaging during Covid not to use public transport.
8 The timescale for Bus Back Better put huge pressure on the resources of LTAs to submit the highly detailed and fully substantiated BSIP bids within the very tight deadline of 6 months set by Government and yet subsequently Government has postponed (currently indefinitely) the timescale for the announcement by Government of both its decision on the BSIP bids and the eventual introduction fof Enhanced Partnerships originally set for April 2022.
LTAs were given 6 months to develop their BSIP bids. They were helped in this process by a Government grant to each LTA of £100,000 (much of this funding going on the consultants that most LTAs needed to develop their bid proposal within the timescale). For example, Somerset’s BSIP bid document ran to 184 pages of detailed analysis and proposals for the much-needed enhancement of Somerset’s bus services.
When the BSIP bids were submitted in October 2021 there was a widely held expectation that a decision on funding for each BSIP bid would be announced in December 2021 or possibly in January 2022 ( to enable the Enhanced Partnership to commence as scheduled in April 2022).
Now here we are in April 2022 and there still has been no announcement on any of the BSIP bids.
Instead, the Government unilaterally announced an indefinite delay to the start of Enhanced Partnerships … no new date has yet been announced by Government.
Without knowing the outcome of the BSIP bids, any agreement on Enhanced Partnerships would be meaningless.
9 The bus industry is still reeling from the impact of Covid.
Problems resulting from Omicron and Plan B plus the huge spike in infections from the admittedly less severe but more highly transmissible BA.2 variant means the effects of the Covid epidemic on bus and train travel are still ongoing.
Bus usage is currently well below the Pre Covid levels with, in Somerset, only reaching some 70-75% of Pre Covid passenger numbers. Recent analysis by bus operator, Stagecoach, has shown that usage amongst ‘seniors’ is a third less than the population as whole, so at around 50% of Pre Covid numbers. Given this age group’s greater vulnerability to serious illness as a result of Covid infection, coupled with Government constant messaging during much of the Covid epidemic telling people to avoid public transport, this older age group are important for bus industry and they may need more reassurance before they return to travelling by bus.
Additionally, Work From Home (WFH) has seen a significant switch in the frequency of working in the office or at the place of work. This reduced frequency of working in the workplace has further affected bus (and train) usage.
Demographic population profiles and workplace regimens will see bus usage compared to Pre Covid levels differ across the country and those authorities that see a slower return to buses because of factors beyond their control might need financial support for bus travel for longer than October 2022, which is when the BRG is set to end.
Consideration should be given as to whether such support could be supported by BSIP funding by individual LTAs in much the same way as the Government has plundered BSIP funding nationally to provide ongoing support for buses during Covid.
10 So, in conclusion, one year on from the launch of the new bus strategy for England (outside of London):