England’s bus network faces a funding gap of more than £5bn to achieve the government’s vision to improve services as part of its efforts to “level up” the country and reduce carbon emissions through raising public transport use.
Local authorities and operators have demanded £7.2bn in funding to improve bus services to deliver the national bus strategy released by the government in March — the sector’s biggest policy shake-up in decades.
The figure, calculated by the Confederation of Passenger Transport, a trade group, is based on plans submitted by 40 areas that account for 70 per cent of England’s bus journeys outside of London and is far higher than the £2.2bn of fresh funding earmarked for buses in the autumn spending review.
Graham Vidler, chief executive of CPT, said the funding shortfall would hit smaller cities and towns, leading to deteriorating services. “Current funding is likely to be able to transform bus services in only a small number of places, including our major cities,” he said. “There are tough choices ahead.”
At the time of launching the national bus strategy, the government said it would invest £3bn of new money on buses, including £1.5bn of emergency Covid-19 spending. The Department for Transport said the commitment was double the amount pledged in the previous 2015 spending review.
“Our ambitious national bus strategy sets out how services need to be overhauled, helping to connect communities as we build back better from the pandemic,” it said.
The demands to plug the funding hole for buses come after the government wound back parts of the HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail projects, threatening to undermine the prime minister’s ambition to level up the north of the country with the south.
Local authorities and bus companies were asked by the government to submit joint plans by the end of October on how to improve services through bus priority lanes, infrastructure, integrating fare systems and other measures to get access to funds.
The government’s strategy was designed to reverse the years-long decline in bus use by simplifying fare systems and offering more reliable and frequent services.
The sector has, however, been struggling to rebuild passenger numbers after Covid-19 led to a reluctance to use public transport. Companies have also been frustrated at the government’s slow pace in releasing money for zero-emission buses as promised.
The number of bus journeys taken dropped by about 60 per cent to 1.57bn in England in the year to March compared with a year earlier. More trips were taken in London, which operates under a separate bus franchise system, than the rest of England.
Vidler said every authority would need some funding to maintain services when its Covid-19 support package of £226m — the final tranche of the £1.5bn that runs from September 2021 to April 2022 — ends.
He also recommended that the government establishes a nationwide programme to make ticketing easier and fairer for a lower cost.