More clarity needed for future of bus travel, says NAO

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) finds that despite the DfT’s aim to increase bus use, passenger numbers have fallen. The NAO recommends that the DfT should set out a clear, consistent vision of the future of bus travel in its National Bus Strategy that encourages and supports local authorities to make long-term plans. The Strategy should include detailed and transparent delivery plan with clear objectives and accountabilities for all parties involved in the bus system.

According to the NAO, DfT does not know if it is getting the best value from its short-term capital funding to local authorities and bus operators. Some funds are bus-specific, for example to support investment in zero emission vehicles or bus infrastructure. The Department’s evaluations show that it has funded schemes that have delivered valuable improvements, although some schemes go wider than bus improvements. However, local authorities told the NAO that the resources needed to bid and account for this funding can be too great. The Department is concerned about local authorities with potentially viable projects that are not accessing funding, because they do not have the resources.

Between 2010-11 and 2018-19 the number of bus journeys fell in 65 of 88 English local transport authorities outside London and by 10% overall. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a drastic reduction in bus travel across the country and created uncertainties about future travel habits. However, the NAO says bus travel will likely remain the primary and essential mode of transport for many, especially the most disadvantaged.

In September 2019, the Government announced it would develop the first National Bus Strategy for England and in February 2020 committed £5 billion over the next five years to promote buses, walking and cycling. Progress with the strategy has been delayed due to COVID-19. However, DfT told the NAO that during the pandemic it had been able to work with local authorities and operators to understand areas of critical need and target support.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Despite the Department for Transport’s long-stated aim to increase bus use, passenger numbers have fallen since 2010. The Department has funded some valuable local enhancements to bus services but these do not constitute systemic improvement.

“To meet the needs of local people, especially those in rural and disadvantaged communities, the Department’s future bus strategy should match the funding provided to its objectives, and better enable local authorities and operators to work together.”

CPT Chief Executive, Graham Vidler, said: “We agree that a long-term vision for bus is essential to help ensure a vibrant and sustainable network for passengers during the pandemic and beyond. The National Bus Strategy is the opportunity to set out this vision and it is vital that the strategy does not sit within a government silo as we need all of government focused on encouraging more people to travel by bus. The best way to do this is to put bus travel at the heart of transport networks across the country, speeding up journey times and giving people the confidence to travel by bus.

“The report also rightly highlights the close partnership working between operators and local authorities during the pandemic, which remains the best way to deliver service improvements for passengers through the pandemic and beyond.”

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “Buses are the only option for public transport across much of the country. But they have been in DfT’s blind spot for far too long.

“It knows local authorities are spending less on supporting socially necessary services – but not which routes were cut, or how this affected the passengers who relied on them.

“DfT’s forthcoming strategy needs to set out how it wants bus services to change – and give the sector and other departments a detailed roadmap to get there.”

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