Boris Johnson yesterday announced reforms to England’s bus industry – promising an extra £3bn of investment for the patchy service. This new funding comes after a decade of underinvestment. Funding for buses fell in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, with local government cuts meaning councils were less able to subsidise routes. Combined annual funding from central and local government fell to £845m in 2019/20 from £1.3bn a decade earlier.
A 2019 study by the Campaign for Better Transport found that more than 3,000 local authority-supported bus services had been cut or reduced since 2009. The report also found that a handful of councils had cut all funding for bus services (Stockton-on-Tees, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Cumbria, Oxfordshire, Isle of Wight, Swindon and Stoke-on-Trent). As a result of these route cuts, more than one million people in Britain now live at least a mile from a bus stop with a regular service according to research by the BBC.
As routes have been slashed, ticket prices have risen, especially outside of London (where Transport for London’s fare freeze has meant they have fallen in real terms in recent years).
However, it is people outside of the capital that are in greatest need of buses. Census figures – though a decade old – show that buses are the main form of public transport used for commuting in most areas outside of London. Far more people rely on buses than any other form of public transport, including trains.
Johnson has tied the improvement of bus services to the Conservatives’ “levelling up” agenda. A recent study by Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) found that people living in “left behind” areas – which rank highly for both deprivation and community need – have fewer cars and therefore rely heavily on public transport. Investing in buses could improve connectivity in these neighbourhoods.
Partly as a result of austerity and fare rises, over the last decade the number of bus journeys taken by passengers in England fell from 88.4 per person in 2009/10 to 72.3 in 2019/20.
However, while route cuts and fare rises may have contributed to the fall in bus use, they are not the sole cause. Increases in state pension age mean fewer free bus passes, and the number of passengers has been falling ever since services were deregulated by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.
This drop in bus usage has mainly taken place outside of London which, exempt from deregulation, saw bus usage rise under TfL until 2010. The rest of England has seen usage drop ever since deregulation.
As a result, the government’s new policy document calls for a change in the way bus services are run, stating that “the fragmented, fully commercialised market, which has operated outside London since 1986, will end”.
More services, new bus lanes, fare simplification and increased local authority power are all positive moves and will aid levelling up. But the Conservatives wouldn’t have to “bus back better” if they hadn’t spent the last ten years cutting funds and created the “fragmented, fully commercialised market” in the first place.