Councils in the dark over bus cash pledge

The Government’s announcement of new funding to improve bus services is in tatters after it emerged that no cash has been allocated, even to councils that have been promised funding.

The Levelling Up White Paper, published last week, said the Government 'will fund ambitious plans for bus improvement, enhancing services and reducing fares, in Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth, Luton, Derbyshire, Warrington and many other places'.

A Stagecoach bus in Portsmouth, April 2021

However, it added: ‘Further discussions will be held with these and other councils to ensure their commitment to the improvements set out in the National Bus Strategy.’

As well as making clear that confirmation of funding for the named councils was subject to further assessment, the announcement did not state how much cash they would receive.

The Department for Transport (DfT) described the named areas only as ‘places that we intend to fund’ and told Transport Network that the level of funding and full list of authorities to receive money will be decided ‘in due course’.

It also said that the White Paper ‘confirms some of the places that will receive funding to implement proposals in their Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs). Local transport authorities (LTAs) were required to submit BSIPs by last October.

While the National Bus Strategy originally said £3bn would be available to improve bus services, this appears to have shrunk to around £1.4bn and it has been estimated that the total value of bids from LTAs could be around £7bn.

A recent letter to LTA directors from the DfT said current funding levels mean that ‘prioritisation is inevitable, given the scale of ambition across the country greatly exceeds the amount’.

When contacted by Transport Network, two of the LTAs named in the White Paper confirmed that they were unaware of how much money they would be allocated.

A spokesperson for Luton Council said it was waiting for more detail on the announcement.

Portsmouth City Council told Transport Network that it saw the announcement 'as an indicator that we will receive some funding'.

Cllr Lynne Stagg, cabinet member for traffic and transportation, said she was ‘delighted’ to see what she called ‘confirmation that UK Government will be funding our ambitious plans for much needed bus improvements’.

However, she added: ‘We eagerly await confirmation of the amount of funding we will receive in response to our plan.’

Emily Yates of the Association of British Commuters said the Government had promised every LTA in England would have an Enhanced Partnership arrangement in place by April, adding: ‘If they are still discussing funding then it’s hard to see how they can possibly meet that deadline.’

She told Transport Network: ‘It’s really worrying to see that just a handful of councils are mentioned in the new White Paper. The available funding will cover just a fraction of the total bids, so what will happen to those who are unable to form an Enhanced Partnership in time - will they still get all their existing bus funding cut off as the Government originally threatened?

‘It's time for the Government to pause and revise the National Bus Strategy; whose program of deregulated ‘Enhanced Partnerships’ has been fatally flawed from the beginning.’

Ms Yates added that socially necessary services ‘are now in greater danger than ever, with neither the DfT nor the majority of councils even beginning their promised reviews of the issue’.

She said: ‘The “levelling up” of public transport should apply to both regional and income inequality, but the Government is addressing neither.'

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