The upcoming National Bus Strategy must reverse the 'vicious circle of decline' that the sector faces, the Department for Transport's (DfT) director of local transport has said.
The plan to release a strategy was first announced by the Government in September 2019, though COVID-19 has apparently delayed it. Transport secretary Grant Shapps told Parliament in September that he remains committed to releasing a national bus strategy by the end of the year.
The DfT'S director of local transport, Stephen Fidlar (pictured), spoke to council directors at the ADEPT autumn conference, giving a stark assessment of the challenges the industry faces but also a flavour of how ministers aim to help.
'Buses have been in a vicious circle of decline. In the national bus strategy, we want to turn that on its head. We want to turn it around so that we are making policy and funding interventions that lower the operating cost of buses.
'We want more bus priority, more zero emissions buses, which we expect, though the evidence is still a little bit shaky, will have a lower operating cost in the medium term.
'Then we re-invest some of that benefit back locally into service improvements and fare benefits, making it a more attractive offer, turning decline into a virtuous circle of growth.
'This is not something we can do from Whitehall - not for a second. This is going to absolutely need us to provide support and funding but local authorities on the frontline and operators, with whatever the right model is, to deliver that in the local context.'
He also stressed that there is now an expectation 'that when the government is funding road schemes going forward, we will absolutely be looking for those schemes to include active travel provision and to consider bus use'.
The comments come after a National Audit Office (NAO) report in October this year found that between 2010-11 and 2018-19 the number of bus journeys fell in 65 of 88 English local transport authorities outside London and by 10% overall.
Bus services have been declining across England for 70 years the NAO pointed out, and the decline continued following deregulation with only a few local authorities managing to buck the trend.
The Government now funds around 24% of bus operators' revenue income through local support grants via a deregulated market model. However, DfT devolves decisions about supporting services to local authorities.
The last decade of austerity hit local bus services hard, and between 2010-11 and 2018-19, 72 local authorities reduced spending on those bus services which operators would otherwise see as not commercially viable (supported services), the NAO reports.
These services often serve rural and disadvantaged bus passengers. Of these, 42 reduced funding by over 50%. 'The Department does not know how passengers have been affected by the loss of supported bus services,' the NAO said.
In February 2020, ministers committed £5bn over the next five years to promote buses, walking and cycling.
The DfT told the NAO that, while COVID had delayed the strategy, during the pandemic it had been 'able to work with local authorities and operators to understand areas of critical need and target support'.