‘Bus Back Better’: Boris Johnson axes de-regulation in England and promises a ‘£3bn bus revolution’

“The quality of bus service you receive shouldn’t be dependent on where you live.”

FULL STORY: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled the most ambitious shake-up of the bus sector in a generation, which will see the end of de-regulation, 35 years after it started in 1986.

The sale of new diesel buses will also come to an end, and the announcement re-affirms last year’s promise of 4,000 new British-built electric or hydrogen buses, while safeguarding the UK bus manufacturing industry

The Department for Transport (DfT) says it is “expected that many councils will choose enhanced partnerships, where local authorities work closely with bus companies, drawing on their operating knowledge and marketing skills. Others may decide that franchising works better for them.”

Revealing what it describes as a ‘London-style system’, the government’s new bus strategy in England, backed by £3bn investment, will see passengers “benefiting from more frequent, more reliable, easier to use and understand, better coordinated and cheaper bus services,” says the DfT.

Also, many hundreds of miles of new bus lanes are promised, to ensure journeys are quicker by bus and congestion-beating.

“The fragmented, fully-commercialised market, which has operated outside London since 1986, will end”

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister

Buses in London were not de-regulated in 1986, but moved to a tendered-contract model now controlled by Transport for London, and will remain unchanged.

“London-style services aren’t appropriate for all rural and suburban areas,” accepts the DfT which is today also announcing the recipients of its £20m ‘Rural mobility fund’.

This enables on-demand services – such as minibuses booked via an app – to be trialled in areas where a traditional bus service isn’t appropriate.

Emergency support for existing services only, not new ones

Because of the decline in use caused by the pandemic, bus operators have already received significant emergency support from the government.

From this summer, only services under these arrangements will be eligible for continued support or any new sources of funding from the £3bn transformational investment.

The government will also consult later this year on reforming the Bus Service Operators Grant – the current main stream of government bus funding – to achieve the same objectives.

While the measures announced are solely for England, due to the Barnett Formula, there will be a pro-rata increase in funding for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where bus policy is already devolved.

Barriers to bus use ended

Announcing the new policy, the Prime Minister says the “fragmented, fully-commercialised market, which has operated outside London since 1986, will end.”

Instead, a new system will see “lower, simpler flat fares in towns and cities, turn-up-and-go services on main routes, and new flexible services to reconnect communities.”

He says: “We want to see operators and local councils enter into a statutory ‘enhanced partnership’ or franchising agreements to receive the new funding and deliver the improvements.”

“The quality of bus service you receive shouldn’t be dependent on where you live. We will provide unprecedented funding, but we need councils to work closely with operators and the government, to develop the services of the future”

Grant Shapps MP, Transport Secretary

“Levelling up services across the country will encourage more people to use the bus, rather than the car, as we build back better from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” adds Mr Johnson.

The changes include:

  • simpler bus fares with daily price caps, so people can use the bus as many times a day as they need without facing mounting costs
  • more services in the evenings and at the weekends
  • integrated services and ticketing across all transport modes, so people can easily move from bus to train
  • all buses to accept contactless payments

Hundreds of miles of new bus lanes will make journeys quicker and more reliable, getting people out of their cars, reducing pollution and operating costs, adds the government.

It also sets out ambitions to provide greater access to bus services for all, with plans revealed to require ‘next stop’ announcements onboard buses throughout Great Britain, helping disabled passengers and others to travel with confidence.

The government will also launch a consultation on new regulations to improve access onboard buses for wheelchair users.

Ten-Point Plan in action

The Prime Minister’s ten point plan, published in November 2020, sets out how the government will accelerate the transition to greener and more sustainable transport.

The Government says it will:

  • deliver 4,000 new British-built electric or hydrogen buses will provide clean, quiet, zero-emission travel
  • transition cities and regions across England to emission-free buses, safeguarding the UK bus manufacturing industry
  • end sales of new diesel buses by at least 2030

It adds: “We expect to see local authorities and operators working together to deliver bus services that are so frequent that passengers can just ‘turn up and go’ – no longer needing to rely on a traditional timetable and having the confidence they won’t wait more than a few minutes.”

“Bus services across England are patchy, and it’s frankly not good enough. Everyone deserves to have access to cheap, reliable and quick bus journeys”

Grant Shapps MP, Transport Secretary

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says: “Buses are lifelines and liberators, connecting people to jobs they couldn’t otherwise take, driving pensioners and young people to see their friends, sustaining town centres and protecting the environment.

“As we build back from the pandemic, better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling-up.

“Just as they did in London, our reforms will make buses the transport of choice, reducing the number of car journeys and improving quality of life for millions.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, said: “Buses are this country’s favourite way of getting around. They help us get to school, to the GP, or to the shops – but services across England are patchy, and it’s frankly not good enough.

“The quality of bus service you receive shouldn’t be dependent on where you live. Everyone deserves to have access to cheap, reliable and quick bus journeys.

“The strategy we’re unveiling today will completely overhaul services, ensuring we build back better from the pandemic.

“Key to it is the new deal it offers to councils – we will provide unprecedented funding, but we need councils to work closely with operators, and the government, to develop the services of the future.”

Reaction from the watchdog and a mayor

Anthony Smith, CEO of independent watchdog Transport Focus, says: “For bus passengers, today’s announcement of more frequent buses and simpler fares will be welcome news.

“For many, buses are a lifeline to employment, education, medical appointments and leisure, and are essential to the economy. We know that the key priorities for those considering using the bus are more services running more reliably, providing better value.

“Since the pandemic, safety and cleanliness have become ever more important. We will work with bus operators and other partners to make sure passengers’ needs are at the heart of new arrangements.”

Welcoming the news Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, says: “Buses are the backbone of public transport in the West Midlands, carrying more than 250 million people every year.

“Today’s strategy is therefore very welcome, and will enable big city regions such as ours to ensure buses remain at the heart of our future transport plans.

“Residents here want clean, decarbonised buses that are affordable and continue to remain reliable and punctual, and that’s what the new strategy laid out today will deliver.”

Reaction from bus operators

On behalf of operators, Confederation of Passenger Transport CEO Graham Vidler said: “Today’s strategy is a huge opportunity for a step-change in bus use, with a major switch away from cars driving a green economic recovery.

“The strategy must now be matched by local delivery and consistent policy across government to put buses at the heart of transport networks.

“It is great to see government sharing our ambitious plans to deliver more frequent and comprehensive bus networks, building on private sector investment and in collaboration with local authorities.  

“Local targets for passenger growth and quicker journeys will ensure local accountability and a shared commitment to delivering better services for passengers.

“This should be the focus of everyone involved in delivering bus networks, rather than the distraction of debates over regulatory models which deliver nothing for passengers.”

David Brown, CEO of Go-Ahead Group, said: “It’s the right time to have a national strategy for buses. Bus usage has been falling for seven years and if Britain is serious about becoming a carbon neutral nation, we urgently need to halt that decline and persuade people to leave their cars at home.

“As a nation, we need to finally move on from the myth that bus use is only for those who can’t afford a car.”

David Brown, CEO, Go-Ahead Group

“In order to do that, buses need to be quick, reliable and convenient. That means giving more bus priority including precedence for buses at traffic lights and tackling rush hour gridlock.

“People with easy access to public transport have more chance of getting a job, and are much less likely to be socially isolated and lonely. By working in partnership with local authorities, private companies can respond to demand effectively, delivering better services for all.

“A full double-decker bus can take as many as 75 private cars off the road, so the benefits of buses in cutting pollution and reducing traffic jams are as clear as daylight. As a nation, we need to finally move on from the myth that bus use is only for those who can’t afford a car.”

Janette Bell, Managing Director of First Bus says: “We welcome the publication of the National Bus Strategy – we fully support, and are committed to, delivering this exciting, customer-focused vision.

“Across the UK, we already work closely and effectively with local authorities and the Enhanced Partnership approach will enable us to build on these strong local relationships as we move toward recovery and work to improve customer experience.

“We welcome the National Bus Strategy – we fully support, and are committed to, delivering this exciting, customer-focused vision. We will ensure that we don’t just exceed Government expectations but put the demands and expectations of our customers front and centre”

Janette Bell, Managing Director, First Bus

“As leaders in sustainable mobility, we embrace the opportunities demonstrated in the National Bus Strategy to accelerate the transition to zero emissions.

“We are fully aligned with Government’s ambitions for a zero-emission bus fleet and have already committed to this by 2035, and not purchasing any new diesel buses after December 2022.

“We will continue to ensure that our progress doesn’t just exceed Government expectations as outlined today but also puts the demands and expectations of our customers front and centre.” 

As part of a longer statement, Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach Chief Executive says: “We welcome the ambition in the government’s new bus strategy. For too long, the power of buses to transform local communities and local people’s lives has been overlooked.

“The new bus strategy provides an opportunity for all partners – operators, national government and local authorities – to work together to harness the huge potential of the bus to help tackle climate change, deliver better air quality in our towns and cities, secure improved mobility for local people and support a sustainable economic recovery for the country.

“It is critical that the strategy is matched by the right level of funding, consistent policy across government and a flexible partnership approach that prioritises benefits for customers and local communities.”

Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive, Stagecoach

“Planning our towns and cities around green buses and active travel, rather than private cars, is central to delivering faster, better value services and getting more people back on board the bus.

“That is why it is critical that the new bus strategy is matched by the right level of funding, consistent policy across government and a flexible partnership approach which prioritises benefits for customers and local communities.”

Reaction from the unions

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT has long called for the creation of a National Bus Strategy to address the massive decline in the bus industry since it was deregulated in the 1980s and we welcome the Government’s acceptance that this is necessary for local bus services to play a key role in connecting communities and meeting our climate change targets.

“However, the strategy appears to lack ambition for addressing the challenges of getting people back onto sustainable public transport following Covid-19. Just days ago, a new National Audit Report warned that cash strapped local authorities may be forced to cut support for local bus services because of funding pressures while one of the major bus companies Go–Ahead was boasting about profits it had made during the pandemic.

“It is vital that the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t push more people into cars, this would increase carbon emissions and worsen public health, but RMT fears the profit driven commercial bus operators are already looking to respond to the pandemic with service cuts.

“The only way to deliver an effective, integrated, accessible and affordable local bus network is for the Government to provide guaranteed ring-fenced national funding for all local authorities to deliver the bus services their communities require via a publicly owned municipal bus operators which recognises and protects the vital role of our essential bus workers who performed so heroically during the pandemic.”

Unite, representing 70,000 bus workers, has warned that the new national bus strategy, “will not reverse more than a decade of service cuts that have left communities isolated.  Further, it could also unleash more employment instability across the industry.”

While the union said that the bus strategy is a welcome admission that the 30-plus year deregulation experiment where the “free-market dictated bus routes has been an unmitigated failure,” it said that the solutions proposed may not significantly improve services.

Unite welcomed the proposals to allow councils to introduce franchising or enter into enhanced partnerships with operators, which will help to “remove the cut-throat competition on profitable routes,” but is concerned that such measures will neither be uniform nor compulsory.

Proposals to reduce ticketing prices, to allow for contactless payments and move towards greener buses are welcome but Unite says that it is “highly disappointing that the strategy fails to introduce minimum standards for bus drivers’ pay and conditions and ignores the growing crisis of fatigue which results in accidents and leads to long-term health problems for drivers.”

There are also serious questions about the funding behind the bus strategy, says Unite: “While large amounts are promised, actual new funding that is immediately available appears to be limited. Unite believes the new investment will not reverse cuts by cash-starved local authorities, which have resulted in the withdrawal or reduction in service of 3,000 bus services since 2010.”

A large percentage of local authorities no longer spend anything on supporting bus services, leading to social exclusion and reduced connectivity, especially in rural communities, it adds.

The union is also “disappointed” that the strategy “fails to allow councils or groups of councils to operate their own services” which Unite believes is the “key measure in operating an efficient bus service which properly serves local communities and tackles the chronic lack of connectivity in the UK.”

Unite is also “alarmed” about the government’s support for on-demand app based services, which it believes will lead to the “Uberisation of bus operations and create a two-tier bus service,” exclude vulnerable groups, damage timetabled services and result in unhealthy competition between competing bus operators.

Unite claims that trials of app-based services have been a failure, as “passengers frequently experienced long delays before reaching their destination as other passengers were dropped off first. For example a 20 minute journey could take over two hours on a non-timetabled service.”

Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton says: “This strategy is a missed opportunity [and] an admission that the 1980s deregulation of the bus service has been a complete failure.”

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