DfT accused of pressuring councils into 'redundant' unfunded bus plans


The head of the body that represents rural councils has slammed ministers for pressuring authorities to keep ‘redundant’ plans for bus partnerships with operators.

Rural Services Network chief executive, Graham Biggs, expressed his frustration following recent allocations of bus funding, which left many councils disappointed.

Earlier this month the Government announced the cash allocations for Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) under the prime minister’s flagship National Bus Strategy, which pledged £3bn to transform local services.

The announcement finally saw 31 authorities allocated just £1,084m, with nearly £2bn having been spent supporting services through the pandemic.

In a comment on the website of the Rural Services Network, its chief executive, Graham Biggs, wrote: ‘I cannot recall the last time that so many rural councils voiced their anger at specific service funding allocations. Words like “complete waste of time, energy and resources” and “rural clearly doesn’t exist in the mind of Government” were commonplace.’

Mr Biggs pointed out that authorities and operators spent 12 months developing a BSIPs, followed by an enhanced partnership (EP) plan and scheme, ‘which are now largely redundant’.

He wrote: 'Most of the Enhanced Partnerships were, we believe, heavily caveated with “subject to the award of DfT funding”, as have many of the commitments required of operators. Without the funding then, clearly, these commitments can no longer be met.’

Mr Biggs added that it was clear that EP arrangements have to remain in place as other funding (from Bus Service Operator Grant, for example) is conditional upon that.

This was confirmed in a letter to unsuccessful authorities from Stephen Fidler, co-director for local transport at the Department for Transport (DfT), who also held out the prospect that local transport authorities (LTAs) could receive funding some other streams, such as the Levelling Up Fund.

Mr Fidler wrote that the Government was encouraging unsuccessful LTAs ‘to implement all aspects of your BSIP that do not require new funding and to maintain your ambition for bus service improvements including by seeking funding from other Government funding streams when available’.

He said the DfT would expect the EP of an LTA that is not currently receiving BSIP funding to include a statutory EP plan and scheme.

He wrote: ‘Please do proceed with getting your EPs (or franchising arrangements) in place as soon as reasonably possible, so that you are able to benefit from other discretionary funds in the future.’

Although the DfT wrote to LTAs in January stating that they were only required to have a draft EP plan, rather than an operational scheme, in place by the end of this month, Mr Fiddler made clear that the requirements he set out for LTAs superseded that letter.

In his online comment, Mr Biggs described hints of Levelling Up Fund cash for bus service improvements as ‘a pipe dream’.

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