Buses are the lifeblood of the UK’s public transport network. They are the nation’s most used form of public transport, delivering multiple economic, social, health and environmental benefits.
However, despite their popularity and utility, bus services have been trapped in a spiral of decline, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. Patronage, mileage and service levels are falling. Shrinking networks increasingly require public support to maintain as commercial operators focus on the most profitable routes. Constrained local authority budgets make the task of patching and mending gaps in the network more challenging than ever.
Meanwhile, recognising the huge benefits that good bus services bring, the National Bus Strategy for England – Bus Back Better, set out a compelling vision for transforming the fortunes of bus. It committed to increasing patronage and mode share through more frequent, cheap, reliable, integrated and easy to understand bus services.
It also made future bus funding dependent on local transport authorities making use of the powers contained in the Bus Services Act 2017, to establish Enhanced Partnerships (EPs) or franchising to demonstrate their vision and planned actions for improving bus services in their areas.
The Strategy also committed to reviewing the decision in the Act to ban the creation of new municipal bus operators despite the success of this model in areas like Nottingham and Reading and the benefits this could bring as an additional means of securing improvements to bus services.
Six years on from the publication of the Bus Services Act, and considering the vision and ambitions presented in the National Bus Strategy, this report sets out to review the provisions of the Act focusing on:
- What can be done to improve Enhanced Partnerships and make it more likely that they will lead to significant improvements in bus services?
- What would enable all areas to pursue franchising and how can the process be streamlined and de-risked?
- What would need to be changed to enable the creation of municipal operators?
- What changes could be made to funding streams to enable greater utilisation of the above options and better outcomes?
It contains a series of recommendations for legislative change as well as quick wins around updating guidance and tools that could support better bus services in cities, towns and communities across the country. Through these changes, government could lay the platform to allow the bus sector to thrive and for local authorities to play their part in delivering better outcomes for passengers to support economic growth.