Loss of services and higher fares 'extremely likely' without further Government support for bus, report warns
Bus passengers could be dealt the double blow of fewer services and higher fares if the Government ends its Covid-related support for the bus at the end of March.
In a report for the Urban Transport Group, consultants Steer warn that bus operators are 'extremely likely' to respond to the absence of further funding by reducing service levels and increasing fares – as they have done in the past.
The Government currently helps fund buses through the Bus Recovery Grant (BRG), which was set up to support commercial bus operators in England because of the impacts on their revenue from reduced patronage as a result of the pandemic. The BRG is set to expire at the end of March 2023.
The report highlights how the Government’s own national bus strategy Bus Back Better, published in March 2021, sought to return bus passenger numbers to pre-pandemic levels before growing them further. But it warns that ceasing financial support at the end of March would be a ‘severe setback’ for those ambitions.
In the last quarter of 2022, bus patronage outside London was at around 85% of its pre-pandemic level, but there is no immediate prospect of patronage returning to 100%.
Whilst making the funding case for urban public transport, the report also explores the options for overhauling the ‘outdated system’ of local public transport funding more widely.
The report states:
‘If Government remains committed to the targets of Bus Back Better, there is an immediate need for further short-term funding to act as a bridge until more comprehensive funding reform is implemented.’
‘Devolution of multi-year revenue settlements to mayoral combined authorities would give the greatest flexibility for how funding is used to support the provision of bus services, with funding being used to shape and support a bus network that best meets the needs to each city region.’
Jonathan Bray, Director of the Urban Transport Group, said:
“The bus is the backbone of our urban public transport networks, supporting those who often have the least to get to work, school or healthcare. But as this report makes clear, Government risks further fracturing of the bus network if it stops backing the bus in March. The combination of fewer services and higher fares will do little to help hard up families struggling with the cost of living or the Government’s own aspirations around levelling up.
“The support that the Government has provided for bus services during COVID and its aftermath has been both vital and welcome. However, we now need to move beyond short term deals, funding cliff edges and waves of service cuts to a longer term and reformed revenue settlement for bus services outside London – one which makes the most of every pound of taxpayer support whilst also being capable of supporting the aspirations that the national bus strategy has rightly set out.”
Bus operators, represented by the Confederation of Passenger Transport, suggest that the end to financial support could lead to a 10-15% reduction in bus services across England. They also said that without further funding, Government support for the bus next year would be over 20% lower (in real terms) than it was 10 years ago.
In addition to the Bus Recovery Grant, the Government also supports bus through the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG); the National Concessionary Travel Scheme (NCTS); and additional funding to local authorities for supported bus services.
Urban Public Transport Funding - Options for Reform
This report, produced by consultants Steer for the Urban Transport Group, explores the options for reforming local public transport funding.
The report also considers the implications of ending covid-related bus funding in April 2023, warning that bus services could be reduced and fares increased as a result.