England’s new bus strategy faces challenge to get passengers on board

England’s national bus strategy, unveiled last month, amounted to an admission by the Conservative government that the 1986 deregulation of the country’s biggest form of public transport had failed.

The shake-up of the sector under then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher left only London with a transport authority with full power over buses: and the capital has been a rare exception to the dramatic fall in bus usage across the country.

In the 12 months to March 2020, before the pandemic struck, there were 2bn journeys by bus in England outside the capital, according to official data. This represented a drop of a fifth from levels just over a decade ago and 45 per cent lower than before deregulation. In London, in contrast, bus journeys have jumped 80 per cent in just under four decades.

Bus services in the capital are heavily subsidised, keeping the cost of travel down, but in many parts of England, deregulation has led to sharp rises in fares as usage fell.

Line chart showing that bus use in England outside of London has steadily declined since deregulation by comparing numbers of bus journeys with numbers of private cars from 1982 to the present

The combination of slow, unreliable and uncoordinated services and complex, expensive fares has forced many weary commuters to switch to cars.

“We’ve come to the end of an era of bus deregulation,” said Jonathan Bray, director of Urban Transport Group, which represents English city regions’ transport authorities, who added that the move was long overdue.

The new strategy gives local authorities freedom to decide how closely they work with bus operators, including moving to a full franchising system under which it allocates routes, similar to the model used in the capital by Transport for London and extensively elsewhere in Europe.

The so-called enhanced partnerships must at a minimum produce joint plans with targets to improve services and increase bus use to qualify for central government funding.

The more centralised planning is intended to simplify and cap fares, integrate ticketing with local train services and increase priority bus lanes, to enable faster journeys.

James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council, said the fragmentation of services caused by deregulation had made buses too complex and expensive.

His 20-mile round-trip from his home to the city centre with bus operator Arriva costs £4.90. But should he need to take another journey the same day, such as to the cricket ground at Headingley just two miles out of the centre, he would have to pay another £4.70 to take a bus operated by rival FirstGroup, unless he bought a £6.70 all-operator ticket in the morning. “Public transport needs planning and integration,” he said.

Line chart showing that bus fares have risen more sharply than for other forms of transport

The ambitious reform of the sector, backed by a £3bn, five-year funding package, is a key element of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s policy to drive a “green” recovery from coronavirus by reducing reliance on cars and introducing 4,000 low-emission buses. Johnson has also put it at the heart of the government’s “levelling up” agenda.

“As we build back from the pandemic, better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling up,” the prime minister said when he unveiled the strategy.

The decision to overhaul the sector was widely welcomed but local authorities, pressure groups and industry executives warned it was only the first step needed to redress the host of problems riddling England’s bus networks.

“The big risk is it needs to be got right in 85 different places”, said Graham Vidler, chief executive of the Confederation of Public Transport, in reference to the number of local transport authorities outside London.

Networks decimated by years of central government cuts, especially unprofitable evening and rural services, need rebuilding. Funding between 2011 and 2019 fell 38 per cent, according to the National Audit Office. The Campaign for Better Transport lobby group estimates 3,000 routes have gone as a result.

On the whole, operators are supportive of the changes, although they point out they already work closely with local authorities. “I think what this strategy does is formalise this agenda,” said Paul O’Neil, managing director of UK bus at Arriva.

But there is early evidence of tension with the industry. Just over a week after the strategy was published, Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, announced a switch to franchising. Stagecoach, one of the largest operators in the area, responded by launching a legal challenge, claiming the move would increase costs without improving services.

England’s elected mayors already had the right to move to franchising but most had held back because of the cost — London’s bus system ran at an annual £700m net deficit before the pandemic — and potential opposition from bus operators.

Burnham has said he will have to find £135m to fund the switch but as yet has provided no estimate of the annual subsidy required. The Local Government Association has underlined the need for more central government funding beyond the £3bn committed. Research by the charity CPRE estimated the new strategy would cost closer to £14bn over five years.

A further challenge is to reverse the sharp fall in the use of public transport during the pandemic. Passenger numbers remain severely depressed after collapsing almost 90 per cent last March as coronavirus struck.

The new strategy commits the government to a post-pandemic marketing campaign, and operators have urged ministers to ensure it is as strident as the one telling people to avoid buses.

“The next six to nine months are a particular point of risk as we come out of the pandemic and try to build patronage in the new world,” said Tom Stables, UK managing director at National Express. “The message of ‘get back on public transport’ needs to be as strong as ‘stop’.”