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Bus Improvement Plans

Volume 819: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the adequacy of the funding available for Bus Improvement Plans.

My Lords, our national bus strategy asks that all English local transport authorities outside London publish bus service improvement plans—BSIPs—setting out local visions for the step change in bus service that is needed, driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want. At the Budget, we announced £1.2 billion of new dedicated funding for BSIPs, part of over £3 billion of new spend on buses over this Parliament.

My Lords, of course, the amount of money already announced is welcome, but there is a yawning gap before we get to the £3 billion the Government announced. Applications for funding from local authorities have so far, I believe, totalled £7 billion. Is that more or less the correct figure? If it is, can she tell us exactly how the money was allocated for the first tranche of funding and what criteria it was based on, and reassure us that the process was fully objective? Can she also tell us when the money will be announced for the rest of the promised funding? As it is International Women’s Day, I bring the House’s attention to the fact that women are overly and disproportionately dependent on bus travel. It is very important that the Government support public transport at this time.

I am trying to piece that all together. I think that what the noble Baroness refers to as the first wave is perhaps the places we mentioned in the levelling up White Paper. Those were just indications of the places we believed had strong enough BSIPs to merit investment allocation; further places for investment are still under consideration. We have been working very hard on reviewing and understanding the plans we have received. I have to be honest: some are absolutely excellent, and others need a bit of work. We are now approaching the stage where the Minister will make the spending decision, and we anticipate that the places announced in the levelling up White Paper will be included, as will many other places.

My Lords, this Question is fundamental to the levelling up agenda. In certain areas of the north-east, for example, buses are so infrequent that they fail to meet the needs of the public and are therefore not used. This compares poorly with, say, London, where public buses are very frequent and obviously very well used. Does the Minister therefore agree with me that the provision of a more frequent bus service will increase usage by meeting the needs of the public and thereby increase revenue and mitigate the costs?

How could I disagree with that? That is absolutely right, but there are lots of factors in terms of increasing frequency, and part of that involves local authorities putting in bus priority measures so that buses can make it through congested areas. The noble Lord mentioned the levelling up White Paper and the importance of buses in that regard. I have to agree. We did say that by 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London. We mean that, and this is a good step along the way.

My Lords, will my noble friend update the House on the position of concessionary fares for buses, and will she join with me in saying how important they are to rural life, enabling people to go about their everyday activities such as shopping, visiting hospitals and attending doctors’ appointments?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend, and there is an awful lot that we will work together on with the local authorities, versus what they have in their BSIPs, to encourage those who do have concessionary passes to come back to bus, because we miss them terribly. Regarding concessionary payments, we published concessionary travel recovery guidance—late last year, I think, but definitely pre-omicron—that looked at how we are going to get concessionary fares matched up to passholders. At the moment, there is a discrepancy because we are paying concessionary amounts out in full. We are looking at that again to make sure it takes omicron into account, but I agree with my noble friend that concessionary passholders are welcome back to bus any day.

Last week I asked for confirmation that

“none of the emergency support or recovery grants for buses has been taken out of the £3 billion for buses and bus services by 2025 announced under the Bus Back Better strategy, and that all the emergency support and recovery grants are in addition to that £3 billion”.

The reply was:

“The Government have committed to spend £3 billion over the course of this Parliament, so I suggest to the noble Lord that, when we get to the end of this Parliament, we do a totting up.”—[Official Report, 1/3/22; col. 681.]

For the benefit of the less academically gifted, like me, did that answer mean that all the emergency support and recovery grants are or are not in addition to the £3 billion under the Bus Back Better strategy—or is that a question to which the Secretary of State also has no idea of the answer?

My Lords, we committed to £3 billion of new spend over the course of this Parliament, and that is what we will deliver. In addition, the noble Lord will recall that my noble friend Lord McLoughlin asked a question about other parts of funding within the system. There will be a letter in the Library, which I will also share with noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate, setting out exactly all the different funding streams available for buses. They are significant. Some are very long standing, some came from Covid and others will be part of the funding from BSIPs and CRSTSs, et cetera.

My Lords, noble Lords have asked about how the Government are to allocate resources to the different regions. Given that this seems to be done in some mysterious way that bears no resemblance to need or the levelling-up agenda, can the Minister say exactly how allocations will be made under this funding?

Yes, I can. There will be probably three different tranches of funding. Some areas—those that produced the best BSIPs, matching all the stated outcomes set out in the national bus strategy—will get transformation funding. A second tranche of local authorities will go into the improvement category, whereby they are on their way to preparing the sort of BSIPs that take into account all the outcomes from the NBS. Other areas will probably need more support, in terms of capability and capacity, so that they can fully understand how buses can meet the needs of their communities. We understand that no place must be left behind. We hope to provide support to areas where the BSIPs are not fully developed but where there is huge potential to do so.

My Lords, can we have a straight answer to this question? How much have local transport authorities asked for under the Government’s bus service improvement plans? Is the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, right that only £1.2 billion is available for these plans? Are we once again to put up with the Prime Minister’s sloganising? “Bus Back Better” bears no resemblance to reality if the figures the noble Baroness gave are accurate.

My Lords, we asked the local transport authorities to be ambitious and, goodness gracious, they were. That is absolutely right. Indeed, I am not sure I have ever done a competition in the Department for Transport that has not been significantly oversubscribed. In aligning the amount of money we have, we have to really look at how that money will be used and whether it meets the requirements in the national bus strategy. I will mention no names at all but, for example, one local authority bid to build a new road from the bus funding. That does not necessarily strike me as exactly what we need out of the bus funding. My officials are making sure that the areas we fund with taxpayers’ funding get the best bang for our buck.

Is not all this bidding for money a bit demeaning for local authorities? Would it not be much better to give them powers over all transport in their areas to get on with the job, and give them the money to do it?

To a certain extent, that is the direction of travel we are moving in— particularly for the large urban areas. For example, Manchester, Liverpool and West Yorkshire—the combined authorities—receive pots of funding that they can use in a very integrated way to establish their integrated transport networks. CRSTSs, which are part of the money we are giving to places such as Manchester, match up with funding from BSIPs, so there is a lot of interrelationship between the different pots of funding. I take the noble Lord’s point, but we have to balance that with making sure we get really good value for money for the taxpayer.