We know that public transport is key to so many of the agendas that matter for councils. Getting more people into buses and public transport will reduce our carbon emissions, improve our air quality and as every bus journey comes with a walk to at least the bus stop it will also help to get people active. We also need to ensure new communities are well served and have the option of a good and reliable service. Despite the importance of bus use in so many of these areas it has been in decline for seventy years. We need to address the decline of the bus industry if we are to achieve our ambitions for climate change, air quality and public health.
The pandemic has thrown the problem into a harsh new light. The entire bus industry became unviable overnight and has survived through councils and central government continuing to pay for services that are no longer being used through emergency support and subsidies. This funding cannot continue forever; whilst councils have done our best to retain capacity in the sector during the immediate crisis if we are going to build back better we must make sure that every pound of public money spent is targeted and delivering the outcomes we want.
Recovery cannot simply be an attempt to rebuild what has gone before, the bus industry has been in long term decline and going back to what we had before and expecting a different set of results is not a responsible way to govern. Instead, we must use councils’ and central governments’ funding, infrastructure and traffic powers to work in partnership with public transport providers.
Councils will play a pivotal role in ensuring the policies we need for a recovery are co-ordinated at the local level and suit the circumstances of the hugely diverse bus markets operating across the country. We have commissioned this report to begin to understand what ambitions councils have for the future of their local transport provision, what levers they have to enable that ambition, what barriers have prevented them from making it a reality before setting out what needs to change in order to build the public transport networks we need.
Many places in the UK continue to have poor levels of air quality, the health problems of which are exacerbated by inactive lifestyles. As well as this there is no realistic route to net zero carbon emissions that involves simply electrifying our current mix of journeys. Public transport, and the bus in particular, must provide more journeys and carry more passengers in the years ahead if we are going to tackle these issues. We hope this independently researched report can be a first step in delivering this.
Cllr David Renard
With major uncertainty around the demand for travel and changing patterns of usage, brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, there is concern at all levels of government about how local public transport services can be delivered sustainably while also being made more attractive. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) have already reported that the current funding and regulatory regime of bus and public transport provision outside of London in England is no longer fit for purpose.
The LGA is, therefore, seeking to influence the formation and delivery of the Government’s national bus strategy in the context of a holistic consideration of public transport. With this in mind, the LGA commissioned SYSTRA Ltd to undertake research to initiate a debate on the future of public transport in England, outside of London, with a focus on local bus services.
This report provides findings from the research undertaken by SYSTRA for the LGA, and is presented as follows:
- the ambitions that exist across local authorities
- the enablers to that help deliver these ambitions
- the barriers to the delivery of these ambitions
- what needs to change to help overcome the main barriers.
By means of a case study led approach, this research was undertaken using a mixture of:
- In-depth interviews with transport officers and councillors from six representative case study local authority areas: Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) and the wider West of England Combined Authority (WECA); Hertfordshire; Lancashire; Lincolnshire; Milton Keynes; and Stockport.
- Desktop research into the transport context in each of the case study areas and the key themes identified in the interviews; and
- Feedback sessions with LGA members, the LGA board, and representatives from the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT). This was undertaken through three web-conferencing presentations, each including question and answer sessions on the findings presented.
What needs to change?
The research has highlighted areas for the LGA and its members to take forward. This includes clearly articulating the challenges facing English local government in fulfilling its local transport responsibilities and wider ambitions.
This includes highlighting the mismatch between available funds and local authority ambitions.
In relation to national funding, feedback suggested that future funding needs to concentrate on:
- Providing longer term stability and predictability, allowing authorities and operators to plan their actions and deliver them in a controlled manner. This would allow better use of their scarce staffing and local funding resources;
- Ensuring that funding is provided in a way that not only tackles capital funding elements but also ensures that the schemes delivered can continue into the future. Adequate local transport funding would go some way towards this;
- Recognising the significant pressures on viability caused by COVID-19, and moving from an emergency funding approach (with major uncertainty around timescales and levels of funding) to a longer-term recovery plan;
- Ensuring that funding opportunities can be accessed by all authorities, not just those with the spare time, expertise, and local funding to respond to calls effectively; and
- Supporting bus service viability and the rollout of clean bus fleets. A long-term capital funding scheme could better allow for a planned approach to the replacement of bus fleets and the capture of operational cost saving efficiencies. A paper by LowCVP has suggested that increased funding for ZEBs through an enhanced BSOG LCEB incentive would be one of the most effective means of encouraging ZEB uptake. This would include moving to a model closer to that used in Scotland, which is tiered to reflect GHG savings and zero emissions capabilities of vehicles.
Highlighting needs around staffing issues will be key. There is a clear need for enhanced local authority staffing in order to produce and deliver long-term transport strategies, make use of new bus powers, be able to effectively react to immediate challenges facing local transport, and deliver on wider ambitions and innovation. Supporting this is likely to need adequate funding to recruit and retain relevantly skilled individuals, or to buy-in specialist expertise, for example in areas such data analysis and management.
The LGA should also consider disseminating examples of good practice about making bus services more attractive and utilising fresh approaches, such as the latest innovations in DRT or optimising use of their internal transport fleets.
This could also include sharing experiences between authorities on how to strike suitable partnerships between local authorities and operators, neighbouring/higher tier authorities, and other public sector agencies. This would be particularly relevant in relation to effectively managing and using data sources and tool, as well as making use of new bus powers available to authorities, such as statutory enhanced partnerships.