Buses and the case for a national strategy


The deregulation of the bus market under the 1985 Transport Act was a failure in terms; however it took austerity to really take the equivalent of a 'Beeching Axe' to buses. 

The need for change is widely accepted and the Transport Select Committee's call for a national bus strategy is as good a place to start as any.


There have been attempts before to reform the system and meaningful change is going to be hard and require a major, consistent funding pledge. Although it should be worth it, considering the benefits buses bring, the support they provide to the most vulnerable in society, and their vital role in reducing carbon andcongestion and helping people into work.

If government gives up on buses - probably the most efficient mass transit system - the alternatives come at a price too, as Innisfil found when it tried to make Uber its public transport system.  

Deregulation fail  

The IPPR report Greasing the wheels found that ‘liberalisation has not resulted in a competitive market – 37% of weekly services outside London do not face any effective head-to head-completion and just 1% of weekly services face effective head-to-head competition over all or most of their route’.

A 2011 Competition Commission (CC) - now the Competitions and Markets Authority - report found Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach controlled more than 69% of the bus market.

The CC estimated that ‘the annual detriment to consumers and taxpayers caused by the lack of competition identified is in the range of £115m to £305m’.

On top of less competition and higher fares, passneger numbers have also been in major decline.

Moves to change

New Labour attempted to reform the market using a Quality Contract System; however it had little effect. A perfect example of the difficulties and complexities of the system was given in 2015 after a ruling from the Quality Contract Scheme Board (QCS) in the North East.

Plans put forward by North East Combined Authority (NECA) were dismissed and the board even suggested hundreds of millions of compensation should be paid to bus companies if they were to go ahead.

The Quality Contract Scheme's Board ‎found that tendering would lead to cash losses of between £85m and £226m, and stated: 'Legislation enabling franchising should specifically address the issue of proportionality of financial loss of bus operators. It may be that some form of compensation is considered appropriate.'

Bus Services Act 2017

This latest attempt to help put power back in the hands of local authorities appears to also be beset by problems, as evidenced by the fact that so few local authorities appear to be taking advantage of it.

The obstructions built into the Act, which bans municipal bus companies and ensures only mayoral combined authorities can even draw up franchising plans without the Government's permission, do not help. But the issues run deeper than just legal and administrative loopholes.

Only Manchester appears to be making much running in the franchising area, and as this excellent article by the Manchester Evening News makes clear, things are far from easy.

Bus companies are undoubtedly reluctant to accept reform; however the sector argues that its margins are tight and it is hard to quickly adapt to an entirely different market model.

The importance of policy and strategy

Rural and isolated should not be seen as interchangeable, as a 2014 Transport Select Committee inquiry highlighted, but both are very dependent on buses.

Since 2010 and the Government’s austerity programme, local bus services have been drastically reduced, causing a direct and disproportionate impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

The Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT) has compiled extensive data on this issue, stating that total spend by local authorities on supported – publicly subsidised – bus services has fallen from £374.3m in 2010/2011 to £202.7m in 2017/2018. In Wales the numbers are £25.9m to £15.8m.

It is rare that buses are a major election issue, but Labour has picked up on the social exclusion impact of these cuts with a headline announcement of plans to pump £1.3bn a year into local bus services to ‘reverse cuts made to 3,000 bus routes’ since 2010.

Transport is vital to health and wellbeing for those in isolated communities.

As Darren Shirley, the chief executive of CfBT, highlights: ‘The Government’s recent Loneliness Strategy recognised that loneliness and isolation affects not just the health and wellbeing of individuals but is currently “one of [the] most pressing public health issues” affecting England. It also recognised that access to public and local transport services “play a key role” in tackling the problem.’

CfBT found that every £1 of public investment in buses provides between £3 and £5 of wider benefits.

The Transport Select Committee has found that 77% of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike and two out of five jobseekers cited lack of transport as a barrier to finding work.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study revealed that while 70% to 90% of unfilled low-skilled job vacancies were easily accessible by car, only 35% to 55% could be reached within 30 minutes by public transport.

On top of this, people in the lowest income quintile make three times more journeys by bus than people in the highest income quintile and disabled people use buses about 20% more frequently than the non-disabled population.

Claire Haigh CEO of Greener Journeys claims that 'a 10% improvement in bus service connectivity can deliver a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation.'

Given the connection between those out of work and most vulnerable with bus network reliance, one might think a clever policy wonk would come up with a scheme to tackle both outcomes in one. They did. Then they axed it.

The former Coalition Government’s flagship £540m Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) was successful in achieving its objective of linking sustainable transport and employment, according to a 2017 evaluation report published by the DfT.

The fund was particularly successful in relation to the local economy, carbon emissions, wider social and economic benefits, and physical activity.

The evaluation concluded that LSTF projects reduced car use and successfully promoted bus use, cycling and walking, including reversing or reducing declines that occurred in non LSTF areas.

The programme delivered by the LSTF Large Projects was also ‘very high value for money’, with a benefit-cost ratio of above five. In 2014, the Transport Select Committee advised more cross-sector working to help isolated communities.

The LSTF provided outcomes with cross-sector benefits to help people into work but was axed despite its achievements, proving that good policies as well as people can fall through the cracks.

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