Let’s be clear – despite the Prime Minister claiming his long overdue Bus Strategy was “ambitious” – this was a missed opportunity by his Government to revolutionise the bus industry and ensure funds were properly directed to deliver the transition to electric and low emission vehicles it promised.
And to create new, green jobs in the bus and coach sector to give operators and manufacturers the boost they badly need.
Whilst on the surface it would appear there’s plenty to be optimistic about, beneath the veneer there’s very little detail.
It’s undoubtedly a welcome step that the Government is introducing a new pricing system that will help to keep costs down, and increase services, while working towards a more integrated network that will begin to link buses and trains.
However, this falls well short of what was expected and what our country urgently needs.
Take the Government’s announcement that it will introduce hundreds of new bus lanes.
That’s all well and good, but that comes off the back of the Government overseeing the loss of 134 million miles of bus routes over the past decade. As a result, bus coverage in Britain is now the lowest it’s been in 30 years.
The claim that it will also accelerate the transition to a greener and more sustainable transport network is a start, but it’ll take until 2025 for the 4,000 electric and hydrogen buses to be fully rolled out on our roads.
Furthermore, the Tories’ rhetoric sits in stark contrast to the reality of some of its policies recently unveiled in the Budget, which significantly undermined their new-found green credentials.
Bus companies need to be properly supported in this transition, starting with the Bus Service Operators Grant, which should be extended to electric vehicles to make them commercially viable.
At present it’s only accessible for operators of diesel buses.
For example in Oxfordshire, the costs are £7,000 more to run an electric bus than a diesel bus, and a truly “Green” BSOG could help to plug this shortfall and make green vehicles a viable option for operators and a genuine step towards cutting pollution and meeting binding climate change targets.
It’s crucial that we also level up areas outside of the capital, rather than attempting to level down London, as the Government has done in its repeated failure to offer long-term funding for Transport for London to enable it to survive record ridership lows as a result of the ongoing Covid crisis.
Long-term funding is the only way to provide our bus sector with the reassurance it needs to look beyond its bottom line and start planning for the future.
A more integrated set-up between local authorities and operators is welcome, but there’s no indication as to how cash-strapped councils would be supported in this process.
Far better to support councils in their efforts to start up, and run, municipal bus services that meet the specific needs of their communities.
If the Transport Secretary had the political will he would find there is support from devolved administrations and local authorities, notwithstanding current restrictions, to explore how this could happen across the country.
At present, it could be argued that the 2017 Bus Services Act doesn’t allow for that, which is why Labour is committed to this change.
So too the announcement that the Government will attempt to join up bus and rail services. It’s vital we have a bus and rail strategy which is properly integrated into the Government’s long-term transport strategy.
Labour would look to offer a genuinely ambitious alternative, such as overhauling access to public buses in rural areas with an “every village, every hour” approach to support those communities who need better access to healthcare, education, and jobs.
As Professor Sir Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty has said, transport should be considered a fundamental human right and the Government should regulate accordingly.
Deregulation has not worked in favour of the vast majority of bus users and people in this country. It’s time they came first.
What’s clear is that we drastically need a bus service that’s fit for the climate emergency.
One that creates good quality, reliable jobs, across communities that are victims of rural poverty and at a time when unemployment is at its highest level in almost half a decade and risks spiralling out of control when the furlough scheme comes to an end later this year.
Until we see those measures we cannot claim to have a radical, green bus strategy that meets the demand of our communities, the immediate post-pandemic needs of the industry, and addresses the huge challenge of stopping catastrophic climate change.
Labour’s radical offer on buses will help reconnect us with our traditional supporters, who have too often lost out under the current system.
Labour is the only Party truly committed to putting bus services that serve our communities, the vast majority of hard working families across Britain.