The government needs a bus strategy, says MPs

The Transport Committee has warned that a lack of co-ordinated government policy and squeezed funding for local authorities is driving bus use into decline.

With most parts of England seeing bus use fall and hundreds of bus routes being withdrawn, the committee has urged the government to establish clear ambitions for bus use and specific plans for how it will support local authorities to improve bus services and increase passenger numbers. A single bus strategy, as for rail and road investment, would give a focus to funding, planning and work to improve air quality, the committee also says.

In Bus services in England outside London, MPs suggests that the government should bring forward a national bus strategy by the end of 2020, and, in doing so, set out plans for making the full suite of operating models, including franchising and the ability to create new municipal bus companies,, as well as outline targets for modal shift and provide a framework to provide guidance for local authorities to encourage people to get out of their cars and onto buses.

Lilian Greenwood, chair of the committee, said: “More than three thousand bus routes in England have been reduced, altered or withdrawn since 2010/11. The numbers using bus services are falling. This has direct consequences on people’s lives, impacting on journeys to work, education and social events. It narrows our transport options and pushes us towards less environmentally-friendly choices. And yet, our inquiry found no real evidence that the Government was determined to take action to stop this.

“Transport groups told us that passengers want simple and accurate information on ticketing and fares and reliable services that turn up on time and get you where you need to go. We heard a real desire to reduce congestion and to improve air quality. Local authorities and bus operators want to work together, whether to understand local traffic to better use bus priority measures, enforce moving traffic violations, or plan for new housing developments.

“The government has strategies on rail investment and road development; it is now time to bring forward a strategy for bus services outside London. Core to the strategy should be the desire to make bus services more passenger focused and provide value for money, helping to bring more people, especially young people, onboard. This will also bring benefits for air quality, cutting carbon emissions and reducing congestion.

“The Department for Transport has a key role in supporting local authorities and bus operators but it needs to ensure its efforts are pulled together under a single strategy which sets out its ambition for bus services, still England’s most popular form of transport. Concessionary fares are obviously important in making public transport affordable and our committee hopes to assist by exploring this area in more detail later this year.”

Claire Haigh, CEO of Greener Journeys, said: “Greener Journeys fully supports the Transport Select Committee’s recommendation that government should have a bus strategy. A strategy for buses, aligned with a more stable multi-year funding regime, will help local decision makers to maximise the wider benefits of buses. A 10 per cent improvement in bus service connectivity can deliver a 3.6 per cent reduction in social deprivation. Every £1 invested in bus infrastructure can deliver up to £8 of wider benefits for local economies.   
“We also strongly agree with the Transport Select Committee that the strategy should include targets for modal switch from car to bus. A model diesel bus produces fewer harmful NOx emissions overall than a modern diesel car despite having 20 times the carrying capacity. Targets for modal switch will help to ensure that buses are, as they should be, right at the heart of plans to improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions and tackle congestion.”

Andy McDonald, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “The Tories have neglected buses, along with the people and communities who rely on them. Theresa May and Chris Grayling refuse to acknowledge there is a problem. The government has slashed funding and denied local authorities powers over services, putting the profit of private bus companies before passengers. Our communities have been damaged by cutting people off from work and leisure and worsening congestion and air pollution.

“Labour would end austerity for bus services, delivering the funding to reverse over 3000 route cuts and invest in new services. Labour will also provide free bus travel for under 25s where bus services are brought under local authority control and give all local authorities the power to bring services under public control, allowing communities to set fares and decide routes.”

Martin Tett, transport spokesman for the Local Government Association, said: “Bus journeys are in a downward spiral of decline, which is driving up fares and exacerbating cuts to the services and routes that are a lifeline for many communities and vulnerable residents.

“The committee rightly calls for the funding of bus services to be reformed and it is good to see several recommendations to improve this. The recommendations also include a single bus strategy for England. Any strategy would have to be backed by adequate resources and find a fully funded long term solution to concessionary fares which are underfunded by at least £652 million a year. This is unsustainable for councils already struggling to protect other subsidised bus travel in rural areas, or helping young people with their travel costs.

“Ahead of the forthcoming Spending Review, government needs to give councils control over the Bus Service Operators’ Grant, and properly fund national free bus pass schemes, if councils are to maintain our essential bus services, reduce congestion and pollution, and protect vital routes.”