1. Public transport in towns and cities

The House of Lords Built Environment Committee published its report on public transport in towns and cities on 9 November 2022. The House of Lords is scheduled to debate the committee’s findings on 17 April 2023.

The committee concluded people in urban areas of England outside London had not had access to “regular, reliable and high quality” public transport. It noted the government had committed to improving public transport across England as part of its levelling up agenda. However, it also said the country was currently in what it described as a period of “severe budgetary uncertainty”. It argued the government should not neglect bus services when deciding how to allocate funding, saying doing so would have a negative impact on both passengers and public finances.

The committee found that nearly two-thirds of all journeys on public transport were made by bus. However, it found that regular commuting at peak times on public transport and trips made for business travel had both reduced following the pandemic. The committee also found that leisure trips at weekends and in the evenings had increased.

As part of its inquiry, the committee also considered the proposals included in the government’s national bus strategy, entitled ‘Bus back better’, published in March 2021. The government said the aim of the strategy was to bring bus services around England up to the standard of services provided in London. The strategy included a requirement for local transport authorities to produce bus service improvement plans in collaboration with local bus operators. The government said these plans would include targets for journey times and improvements to reliability. Further information on the government’s national bus strategy is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Transport investment: Bus and rail’ (24 March 2023).

2. Committee recommendations

The committee argued the government needed to address factors inhibiting the delivery of high-quality public transport services. Its recommendations included:

  • The government should continue to provide assistance beyond March 2023 when the existing pandemic support scheme, the bus recovery grant, was due to end. The committee said ending pandemic support funding could result in a 20% reduction in bus services.
  • The process by which local authorities bid for central government capital funding should be reformed. The committee argued the current system was “costly, resource intensive and inefficient”. It also said the current system favoured larger local authorities which had greater resources for producing a bid. The committee recommended the government examine the feasibility of replacing this system with a periodic block grant.
  • Local and central government should assess the effectiveness of different approaches to local transport provision. Under the national bus strategy, local transport authorities are required to either adopt an enhanced partnership or produce a plan to establish a franchising scheme. The committee recommended that implementation of both of these options should be assessed for value for money. Enhanced partnerships are statutory partnerships whereby local transport authorities agree to provide certain facilities and measures. At the same time, local operators agree to deliver certain service standards.
  • Transport providers should prioritise the needs of users, making sure services are convenient, reliable, punctual and safe. The committee also recommended providers ensure stations and interchanges are safe and well lit.
  • The government should formally link local transport plans with local plans. The committee found that local and transport planning was often insufficiently integrated. For example, the committee said homes were being built without access to public transport.

3. Government response to the committee’s report

The government published its response to the committee’s report on 12 January 2023. The government said it aimed to work collaboratively with local authorities, transport operators and others to ensure some of the issues identified in the report were addressed. Specifically, it said:

  • The Department for Transport (DfT) was actively considering long-term support for the bus sector from April 2023. The government said it hoped to provide greater clarity to the sector concerning funding “by January 2023”.
  • It partially agreed with the committee’s recommendation concerning the competitive bidding process for transport funding. The government described the current system as overly complex. It said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was working on a funding simplification plan. However, the government did not say it would examine whether to adopt a new system of block grants.
  • On assessing effectiveness and value for money, the government confirmed local transport authorities would be required to address these issues in their bus service improvement plans. It said these would have to be updated every 12 months. The government also confirmed a DfT relationship manager would monitor the value for money provided by local transport authorities.
  • It accepted that investment in public transport should focus on those factors that are most important to users. It argued improving transport for the user was one of the DfT’s strategic priorities.
  • It noted the committee’s recommendation on linking local transport plans with local plans. The government said the DfT was consulting on new local transport plan guidance. This guidance would set out how local transport authorities should “engage proactively and positively” with local planning authorities. The government also argued local transport plans and local plans should be aligned where it was practical to do so.

4. Recent announcements

On 17 February 2023, the government announced it would make £80mn of funding available to extend the bus recovery grant scheme for a further three months until 30 June 2023. The government also announced it would provide £75mn to enable bus operators participating in the government’s bus fare cap scheme to continue to set single bus fares outside of London at £2 until the end of June. The government confirmed that over 140 operators were currently signed up to participate in this scheme.

The announcements in February did not confirm what support would be available after June 2023. However, on 7 March 2023 the government said it was:

[…] currently working on our plans for when the bus recovery grant ends on 30 June 2023 and will continue to work with the bus sector, including bus operators and local transport authorities, on the challenges they face.

The government has not yet published proposals for simplifying the process by which local authorities are able to bid for capital funding. On 27 March 2023 the parliamentary under secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, Dehenna Davison, told the House of Commons the government would publish a funding simplification plan “in due course”. Neither has the government published new guidance on producing local transport plans. However, on 3 March 2023, the transport minister, Jesse Norman, said the government would be consulting on new guidance shortly.

5. House of Commons Transport Committee: Implementation of the national bus strategy

On 30 March 2023, the House of Commons Transport Committee published a report entitled ‘Implementation of the national bus strategy’. The committee praised the strategy as ambitious and said it included many good ideas, including the introduction of bus service improvement plans. However, it argued the promised transformation of bus services outside London had yet to be achieved. The committee recommended the government should set out how it plans to evaluate the success of the strategy. For example, the committee made a similar recommendation to that made by the House of Lords Built Environment Committee on enhanced partnership or franchising. It argued the government needed to monitor carefully how these arrangements worked in practice. The House of Commons Transport Committee also recommended the government should ensure that smaller local transport authorities are able to compete fairly with larger authorities as part of the bidding process for central government capital funding.

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Cover image by Wikimedia Commons.