Act now: There are three steps to bus heaven, DfT tells operators and local authorities

Recommendations to help English local transport authorities (LTAs) and local bus operators work together to develop an ambitious bus service improvement plan (BSIP), as set out in the National Bus Strategy, have been published this morning by the Department for Transport (DfT).

The National Bus Strategy, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, calls for a ‘step-change’ in buses.

BSIPs should “describe in outline how LTAs and operators in an area can achieve the overarching goal of the National Bus Strategy – to grow bus patronage: both to build it back after the pandemic and then to increase it and raise buses’ mode share,” it says.

With a deliberately tight timescale, the DfT is keen to see rapid progress as it publishes its document: Bus service improvement plans: guidance to local authorities and bus operators

It says: “The next year provides a unique opportunity to deliver significant improvements for passengers. That is why it requires urgent action.

Excel is a 30-minute inter-urban service between Norwich and Peterborough, running from early morning to late evening using high quality buses, the sort of exemplar the DfT aims for

“The Strategy sets a fast-paced agenda to transform bus services and encourage the return of passengers including by promoting modal shift. To deliver this, there are specific dates by which LTAs must take each of three steps.”

  • Step 1by 30 June 2021 – Decide which statutory path to follow – pursue an Enhanced Partnership (EP) Scheme or develop a bus franchising assessment
  • Step 2 by 30 October 2021 – Publish a Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP).
  • Step 3 by 31 March 2022 – Have either an EP Scheme in place or be following the statutory processes to develop a bus franchising assessment.

The DfT says that “a new version of the EP and franchising guidance will be published shortly.”

In publishing the guidance, the DfT says: “Given that BSIPs will have to be produced within six months, they will necessarily be outlines. We do not expect vastly detailed and granular documents running to hundreds of pages. Nor will we take them as definitive or immutable commitments or statements of intent on your part.

“Their main purpose is to get everyone thinking about what questions need to be addressed in the area, to explore possible answers, and to provide an early basis for funding decisions in the autumn and winter in preparation for the financial year 2022/3 when transformational funding begins.”

Follow the money

The change to funding will see payments for capital and revenue from Central government determined by an LTA’s BSIP. If no plan is provided, or it is judged to be deficient, existing funding, such as for Bus Service Operators Grant, will cease.

“A BSIP is the essential first step as it will be the extent of the ambition, delivered through an Enhanced Partnership or franchising, that will be critical when Government decides how new funding is allocated,” says the DfT.

Access to a share of the new £3bn funding will require the LTA to issue a notice of intent, produce a BSIP and have an Enhanced Partnership in place (where this is being pursued) by the dates required. This funding will cover both capital and revenue support.

The Government will issue further guidance “in the summer” about how funding will be allocated. BSIPs will enable the Government to “understand the appetite for transformational investments which support the bus sector in the funding period and over the long term (i.e. beyond 2025).”

The BSIP covers everything, including the provision of information, lacking at this 10-minute frequency service’s bus stop in Peterborough, an area whose LTA has previously received DfT funding through the ‘Travel Choices’ programme

LTAs may join together to produce a single BSIP – particularly where local economies and travel patterns overlap significantly. “We expect LTAs to collaborate to resolve any cross-boundary issues,” adds the DfT.

“There can be no return to a situation where services are planned on a purely commercial basis with little or no engagement with, or support from, LTAs,” adds the DfT.

“Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) are how LTAs, working closely with their local bus operators and local communities, address this – by setting out a vision for delivering the step-change in bus services that is required by the Strategy.

Network design

The Strategy requires BSIPs to cover network design. This may involve changes to the bus network that was previously provided under the (pre-Covid) deregulated market.

“We would expect the LTA to take the lead on this, using available operator and other data to, for example, determine where there are gaps in network coverage and where there is overprovision – e.g. on urban corridors,” says the DfT.

“The Strategy also raises other competition issues that the Government will provide further guidance on as soon as possible.”

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