National Bus Strategy: England

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:06 pm on 15th March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Transport 5:06 pm, 15th March 2021

I would like to make a statement about bus services. Britain is often described as a railway nation, but if we have a national form of public transport, it is definitely the bus, carrying more than 4 billion passengers a year in England—more than twice as many as rail—over a vast network. No other type of public transport comes close for convenience, affordability and popularity. If anyone needs persuading of the bus’s value, surely the 2020 experience has provided us with the evidence we need. Without buses operating day and night, many key workers would have been unable to get to work, so we owe a debt of gratitude to the bus industry and, in particular, to the magnificent bus drivers for keeping this country moving.

Covid has shown that buses provide Britain with far more than just a means of travel. There are a lifeline for millions. In normal times, they help students to get to college, they help those without work to attend job interviews, they help the elderly to get to the shops and they help us all to get about. They are crucial for the survival of our high streets, for rural businesses and for the planet, too. For many disabled people, they can be an accessible way to stay mobile. In all these ways, buses are not just an industry but almost a social service. Fundamentally, they help us to level up the country.

Buses can and should also be the transport of choice, in my view. London, Brighton and Harrogate have already proved this, with frequent modern services and dedicated lanes attracting millions of journeys a year from the private car. We want to do that everywhere throughout the country, yet in most regions outside London services have been in decline for decades. Successive Governments before this one have failed to prioritise buses, either with sufficient investment or with a workable plan. That is why this Government are taking action to revitalise bus services, and why today we have published the national bus strategy for England outside of London, with its bold vision for the industry to reform the way it has managed to deliver tangible benefits for passengers, and this is all backed by £3 billion of Government investment.

Covid has hit the bus sector hard, as it has all transport, but it is also provided an opportunity to put better bus services at the heart of the community. Throughout 2020, bus companies and councils have had to co-operate as never before to keep services running for key workers. Now we want to harness the same sense of partnership and change the way the industry fundamentally works by putting the passenger and the environment first.

Passengers want simpler fares, more routes and services, easier information and greener buses, and this bus strategy reflects people’s lives. In cities and towns, this means that travelling when we want and where we want becomes easy to do on a bus. We expect councils and operators to bring in simple, cheap flat fares with contactless payment by card or by phone. Up-to-date information should be available immediately on our phones, on board the buses and at bus stops. We want closer integration of services and ticketing across all forms of public transport, so that people can seamlessly travel from buses to trams to trains and we end the absurd situation where different operators do not recognise or accept each other’s tickets. We want to have much more of the “turn up and go” type of service—the kind of frequency that means you do not even have to look at the timetable before you get on the bus—and more services in the evening and at weekends.

In rural areas and out-of-town business parks, we sometimes need to be able to provide buses that are available on demand from an app on your phone. Today, I am pleased to announce £20 million of investment from our rural mobility fund to trial on-demand services in 17 different locations, including minibuses booked via an app that people pick near their home at a time that is convenient to them.

I want anyone who happens to be disabled to be able to confidently travel when and where they want, so this bus strategy will make sure that all local services have audible and visible “next stop” announcements. We will consult this year on improving access to wheelchair space and priority seating for those who rely on them. A series of new bus passenger charters will define precisely what all bus users can expect in their particular areas.

Before covid, the way in which buses were organised made it hard to arrest the decline in bus ridership—a decline that has been going on since the 1960s. The pandemic has brought councils and the industry together, and we want every local transport authority in the country and its bus operators to be in statutory enhanced partnerships or in franchising arrangements throughout. The franchising system is used in London. For example, Transport for London sets the routes and the fares, but that will not be appropriate everywhere. That is why enhanced partnerships will be required, whereby the operators and the councils reach negotiated agreements on how buses will run, with local authorities taking greater responsibility for bus services, whichever solution they choose.

By 30 June this year, we want all local authorities to commit to one of those two options, with the bus operators’ support. We will need that commitment if they are to receive further emergency funding from the covid bus services support grant. I can confidently predict that they will all be on board. Local authorities, in collaboration with operators, will then produce bus service improvement plans by the end of October this year.

These plans are pretty ambitious. By looking at the best bus services around the world and striving to match them, we expect to see how bus priority can best work without increasing congestion. We want to create plans for fares and ticketing, and we want to see how they will deliver urban, town and rural users to the bus network. Future Government financial support will depend on local authorities and operators coming together under an enhanced partnership or franchising agreement. For our part, we will work with councils to introduce bus priority schemes this year, and we will roll out marketing to attract millions of new passengers to the network—people who have never used buses before.

The strategy also sets out our road map to a zero-emission bus fleet. Bus operators have invested £1.3 billion in greener buses over the last five years, which has been supported by £89 million of Government investment, and we will commit to delivering 4,000 zero-emission buses. I expect to release funding for the first all-electric bus city very soon. However, only 2% of England’s bus fleet is fully zero-emission today, so after our historic move to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, this bus strategy sets out our plans to end the sale of new diesel buses in England too. We have launched a consultation to decide how and when that will happen.

This strategy marks a new beginning for buses. We will not only stop the decline that has been going on historically for decade after decade; we want to reverse it by making buses a natural choice for everyone, not just for those without any other travel options, and we want to put the passenger first. We want to build the stronger road partnerships that I have been talking about by channelling £3 billion into better services. Such a sum has never been seen before in respect of bus investment and will help us to transform buses throughout England and, by doing so, to transform our country, too. I commend this statement to the House.