The future of public transport and the role of Local Government - report

Image of speeding bus with LGA/Systra logos
The Local Government Association commissioned SYSTRA Ltd to undertake research to initiate a debate on the future of public transport in England, outside of London, with a focus on local bus services.

Foreword

We know that public transport is key to so many of the agendas that matter for councils. Getting more people into buses and public transport will reduce our carbon emissions, improve our air quality and as every bus journey comes with a walk to at least the bus stop it will also help to get people active. We also need to ensure new communities are well served and have the option of a good and reliable service. Despite the importance of bus use in so many of these areas it has been in decline for seventy years. We need to address the decline of the bus industry if we are to achieve our ambitions for climate change, air quality and public health.

The pandemic has thrown the problem into a harsh new light. The entire bus industry became unviable overnight and has survived through councils and central government continuing to pay for services that are no longer being used through emergency support and subsidies. This funding cannot continue forever; whilst councils have done our best to retain capacity in the sector during the immediate crisis if we are going to build back better we must make sure that every pound of public money spent is targeted and delivering the outcomes we want.

Recovery cannot simply be an attempt to rebuild what has gone before, the bus industry has been in long term decline and going back to what we had before and expecting a different set of results is not a responsible way to govern. Instead, we must use councils’ and central governments’ funding, infrastructure and traffic powers to work in partnership with public transport providers.

Councils will play a pivotal role in ensuring the policies we need for a recovery are co-ordinated at the local level and suit the circumstances of the hugely diverse bus markets operating across the country. We have commissioned this report to begin to understand what ambitions councils have for the future of their local transport provision, what levers they have to enable that ambition, what barriers have prevented them from making it a reality before setting out what needs to change in order to build the public transport networks we need.

Many places in the UK continue to have poor levels of air quality, the health problems of which are exacerbated by inactive lifestyles. As well as this there is no realistic route to net zero carbon emissions that involves simply electrifying our current mix of journeys. Public transport, and the bus in particular, must provide more journeys and carry more passengers in the years ahead if we are going to tackle these issues. We hope this independently researched report can be a first step in delivering this.

Cllr David Renard

Introduction

Background

With major uncertainty around the demand for travel and changing patterns of usage, brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, there is concern at all levels of government about how local public transport services can be delivered sustainably while also being made more attractive. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) have already reported that the current funding and regulatory regime of bus and public transport provision outside of London in England is no longer fit for purpose.

The LGA is, therefore, seeking to influence the formation and delivery of the Government’s national bus strategy in the context of a holistic consideration of public transport. With this in mind, the LGA commissioned SYSTRA Ltd to undertake research to initiate a debate on the future of public transport in England, outside of London, with a focus on local bus services.

This report

This report provides a summary of the findings from the research undertaken by SYSTRA for the LGA, and is presented as follows:

  • the ambitions that exist across local authorities
  • the enablers to that help deliver these ambitions
  • the barriers to the delivery of these ambitions
  • what needs to change to help overcome the main barriers.

This report is supplemented by a full accounting of the research, which is publicly available on the LGA website.

Approach

By means of a case study led approach, this research was undertaken using a mixture of:

  • In-depth interviews with transport officers and councillors from six representative case study local authority areas: Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) and the wider West of England Combined Authority (WECA); Hertfordshire; Lancashire; Lincolnshire; Milton Keynes; and Stockport. 
  • Desktop research into the transport context in each of the case study areas and the key themes identified in the interviews; and
  • Feedback sessions with LGA members, the LGA board, and representatives from the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT). This was undertaken through three web-conferencing presentations, each including question and answer sessions on the findings presented. 

Ambitions of local authorities

Introduction

This section explores some of the ambitions which were put forward by the local authorities interviewed in the study, and is supplemented by information presented in strategy and policy documents within these areas.

While the following information related to the six case areas considered in the project, the feedback sessions with wider local authorities suggested that the themes identified are shared by many other authorities, albeit that the scale and subtleties of each vary by local context.

Delivering Local Authority responsibilities effectively

It is the role of councils to set out policies and objectives for local transport, and to manage the spending of local government transport budgets. They have certain duties, such as:

  • Statutory requirements around the provision of school transport;
  • A requirement to determine local non-statutory concessions policy and administer both statutory and non-statutory travel concessions (via Traffic Concession Authorities); 
  • To identify and consider funding socially necessary bus services; and
  • To consider the needs of elderly and disabled individuals. 

All respondents had ambitions to improve their ability to provide these local transport responsibilities but noted that there were significant barriers to doing so, in particular in difficult operating environments such as rural areas, and in light of the impacts of COVID-19. Barriers are discussed further in Section 4.

Making bus services more attractive

Our study highlighted that authorities are keen to address the decline in bus use that has been seen in recent decades, and they recognise that making bus services more attractive is key to achieving this. As well as the many benefits that arise from providing an effective public transport network, desires for improvements are, in part, driven by the high expectations from the public to have attractive and affordable services. They also see this as a way to connect new communities, reduce car dependency and congestion, lower carbon emissions and fight climate change, improve air quality and health, and tackle social inequalities.

Established Best Practice

Authorities made it clear that they understand what attractive services look like and they have a strong desire to able to deliver best practice solutions. Some of the key examples of good practice given were:

  • Fast, frequent bus services, including bus priority measures – reducing journey times also reduces operating costs;
  • Integration of the physical network between modes including Park and Ride, and connectivity with mobility hubs such as rail, tram, active travel etc;
  • Integration of ticketing and payment between operators and modes is key across the board; and
  • Branding, marketing, and easy access to information for transport users, planners, and partners.

New Approaches to Transport Delivery

There is a desire amongst authorities to embrace innovative practices in order to deal with the persistent problems, tackle specific contextual issues (e.g. providing attractive rural networks), and address the new challenges which have been presented by COVID-19. 

Some of the key opportunities being explored by authorities include:

  • Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) – this can provide opportunities to make services more attractive, in the right context. For instance, DRT can help connect isolated communities, create flexibility around school transport, and be used as a model for community led transport schemes;
  • Total Transport and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) approaches – these concepts were seen to have value in the integration of modes, payment and ticketing, attracting car users to public transport, and in integrating sectoral transport (for example across health, education, tourism etc.);
  • Exploring new ways to plan public transport networks – Authorities suggested using ‘interchange’ and ‘hub and feeder’ models of network planning – typically these involve concentrating network resources around a set of core high-quality routes (fast and frequent) which are then integrated with local feeder services (in some instances, DRT) through high quality interchange facilities. This model aims to simplify routing and avoid convoluted routes that aren’t attractive to the majority of users, while still providing connectivity to as many users as possible. 
  • There is also recognition that bus service planners and operators must be able to understand changes in patterns of travel which are being observed, and try and capture some of the opportunities related to this – for example, flattened demand in peak periods could mean that operators can reduce their peak vehicle requirement (PVR), reducing the cost of additional vehicles and staff which were previously only required to serve the short, sharp peaks in commuter travel prior to COVID-19.

Looking forward, it was also noted that there may be lessons to be learned from the Future Transport Zone funded projects being rolled out in some areas across England – this funding stream looks to implement some of the measures discussed above, such as MaaS.

Linking Public Transport and Development

There are clear ambitions in some areas to co-ordinate the planning of local public transport services and land use planning. Councils have highlighted the importance of placing strong public transport offerings for users at the heart of all developments. This helps to build demand for public transport, reduce car reliance, and ensures that people have equitable access to jobs, healthcare and other services. 

In doing this, authorities raised the need for a stronger commitment to delivering best practice in development planning, for example:

  • Developing liveable neighbourhoods which reduce the need for non-local travel in general, but which particularly aim to break the need for car ownership.;
  • Ensuring that all new developments have public transport access for when travel is needed. This must be provided in early phases of development occupation in order to lock-in positive travel behaviours – change in travel habits often occur at major life transition points such as when moving to a new house or changing job; and
  • Measures which actively restrict car access to areas where car travel is undesirable, making other modes the preferred choice – for example, by reducing permeability of city centres and sensitive areas through road closures and modal filters.

Tackling Climate Change and Improving Air Quality

The UK has made the commitment, through the Climate Change Act, to reach net zero carbon by 2050. Reporting from the Committee on Climate Change on achieving a ‘Net Zero’ carbon future, notes that transport is the largest source of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (at 23 per cent of the total) and saw a rise from 2013 to 2017

In terms of air quality, a related but distinct issue, there are significant public health implications, mainly related to Particulate Matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the ambient air. High concentrations in NO2 are often linked to diesel engines, including those of conventional buses. Air pollution is recognised as a contributing factor in the onset of heart disease and cancer and particularly affects the most vulnerable in society: children and older people, and those with heart and lung conditions. As such, there are legally binding health-based limits for concentrations of several pollutants in the outdoor air, notably NO2. 

The above issues around climate change and air quality have been recognised by local authorities, and those interviewed were keen to highlight the importance of tackling the negative environmental impacts of transport. 

Respondents stated that they had ambitions to respond to these issues by providing genuinely attractive alternative to car, largely through improved local public transport, and by undertaking actions to support car-free lifestyles more generally.

Improving bus fleets, through the replacement of older vehicles with low and zero emission vehicles, was also seen to be key. Some cities in England have implemented measures such as Clean Air Zones to enforce this action.

Summary

In summary, our research found a clear ambition by local authorities to ‘do more’ to improve local public transport, and that they have a clear idea of what needs to be done. However, it was evident that there are some serious challenges facing local authorities which are limiting their ability to deliver their ambitions. 

The sections which follow explore some the ways in which local authority ambitions can be enabled, but also highlights a number of the barriers which stand in their way.

Enablers for the delivery of local authority ambitions

Introduction

The study highlighted a number of key enablers for local authorities to deliver the ambitions set out the section above.

Partnerships

Building strong partnerships was one of the key enablers highlighted in the study. 

The delivery of local public transport can be improved by effective communication and partnership working between:

  • Neighbouring councils – for example, to develop joint strategies which tackle shared problems, and to deliver cross-boundary travel initiatives such as payment and ticketing;
  • Tiers of government – to help maximise resources, access funding, collect and analyse data, overcome barriers to regional and local transport delivery. Authorities should work together to provide local enforcement strategies (e.g. on parking) which effectively deliver on regional policy, and vice versa;
  • Transport officers and politicians, such as councillors – to ensure that delivery of transport relates to the needs of communities and that long-term strategies for transport are supported politically;
  • Councils, public transport operators, and other bodies providing transport, such as those in the third sector – to ensure open dialogue, to work together to face common challenges, and efficiently manage resources including those which could be shared; and
  • Different sectors, such as health, education, employers, social care, and tourism – to consider where there is the potential for integrated delivery and improved efficiency.

Our research highlighted strong working relationships between local authorities and public transport operators to explore solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. These included rapid deployment of financial support from authorities to keep bus services running where needed, and bus operators offering bespoke services to employers, to cater for staff transport, and authorities to cover home to school transport.

Partnership working and strong communication is particularly important for the delivery of any innovative transport projects, such as MaaS. 

One such area which requires a particular focus on partnership working is the delivery of zero emission bus solutions.. Switching to clean bus fleets requires delivery of essential infrastructure such as bus depot upgrades, and the rollout of EV chargers / hydrogen fuelling solutions. Where infrastructure is required in public or council owned spaces, such as bus stations or Park and Ride sites, joint working is needed on how these are provided.

Partnership working is also crucial for the use of new transport powers by councils. Statutory enhanced partnerships, formalise partnership working between the council and bus operators. Therefore, strong relationships must be developed between all parties in order to ensure that each fully understands and commits to the conditions of the partnership.

Making Use of New Bus Service Powers

When looking to improve the attractiveness of bus services, some authorities are keen to establish additional control over how, when and where bus services are operated. One enabler for this is by making use of new bus powers which are available to them, in part from the Bus Services Act 2017, such as statutory enhanced partnerships and franchising.

Where new powers are being used or investigated, these are seen as a way to recognise unique operational contexts and to help shape the bus network for the mutual benefit of local authorities, public transport operators, and users.

Statutory enhanced partnerships, for example, offer formalised statutory partnership working between local authorities and bus operators. They aim to deliver improvements to bus services, often in on a quid pro quo basis. 

Hertfordshire, for example, recently introduced the statutory Intalink Enhanced Partnership. Under the Partnership, the County Council has a commitment to provide or improve public transport facilities and measures, including: bus priority measures (bus lanes, traffic signal prioritisation); real time infrastructure and information; and ticketing schemes. In return, bus operators have committed to provide: newer, cleaner vehicles; higher frequencies; evening and weekend services; an extended network; lower ticket prices; access to data on a monthly basis; and Intalink branding on buses.

Franchising, which is available to only some authorities, provides the ability for authorities to specify service requirements. The Greater Manchester area is looking to reform the bus network and is carrying out works to move to a franchise model. A franchising model would allow bus services to be specified across the area, as is currently done in London. 

Data and Analysis

Data, analysis and tools/models can be used to help authorities to understand key information which is important to delivering transport, such as travel pattern data, user demand profiles, congestion and efficiency indicators, and capacity analysis etc.

Effective data analysis and tools/transport modelling are important because they:

  • help identify and assess the scale of problems and opportunities; and 
  • can be used to test and justify the actions proposed for improving the situation. 

The effects of COVID-19 on transport have made these factors even more important – rapid changes are occurring in relation to demand and patterns of travel which need to be understood and dealt with quickly. For example, it is likely that commercial bus services are being scaled back across the country, and it will be important to quickly understand which areas and groups of people are being affected by this. Effective strategies for tackling these impacts need to be developed and then appraised for cost and benefit – robust data can inform this. Various tools can be used to help quickly plan bus routes and provide key metrics (e.g. accessibility statistics and cost) from which options for action can be appraised. 

For larger schemes, and in particular those which require access to national or regional funding sources, the production of a business case may be required in line with national guidance. Having extensive high-quality data and modelling tools available can help ensure that sufficient evidence can be made available to demonstrate a case for these schemes, and the delivery of local authority ambitions for change. Those areas which cannot demonstrate the need for, and impacts of, transport schemes may miss out on opportunities to affect change.

Some areas are using data highly effectively and have good arrangements to collect, analyse, use and share data – both within and between councils, and on open data platforms for use by other parties, such as operators, consultants, and innovators. This was one of the main benefits highlighted by partnership working between different council areas and tiers of government. Indeed, there may be benefit in more widespread national or regional standardised collection, management and use of data and forecasting resources.

Funding

A resounding message from the local authorities interviewed is the importance of funding as an enabler. Specifically, that sufficient and effective spending can help authorities to:

  • Attract and maintain sufficient staff resources (people, skills and systems) to: fulfil everyday transport planning needs; respond to short-term challenges; plan and deliver long-term plans; and also devote time to undertaking, managing, and commissioning studies which explore and deliver innovative changes in transport. Those proposals which are more innovative and/or will affect greater change often required more significant council and external staff resource to develop and implement;
  • Ensure that statutory transport requirements are delivered effectively, for example by providing services directly (e.g. staff and fleet), effectively managing partnerships and data to support others delivering transport services, and provide resources which will improve the efficiency of statutory transport for all (e.g. investment in ticketing and dispatch tools);
  • Ensure that delivery of concessionary reimbursement to operators does not impact on other areas of transport spending;
  • Deliver actions to push forward local transport ambitions, through capital funding and revenue funding, for example infrastructure investment to improve bus journey times, and vehicle investment and revenue funding support to kickstart new demand responsive transport services; and
  • Have sufficient resource to staff and fund actions which provide access to additional funding sources, e.g. to develop local revenue raising projects, such as a Workplace Parking Levy, or access national funding streams which require the production of evidence-based applications – and are often competition based, with some councils gaining funding and others missing out.

When asked about the amount of spending needed for a transformational change in local public transport, some local authorities indicated that increased spending – in the realm of doubling local funds – would be required.

Some of the authorities consulted with, and other identified through desktop research, are pursuing local funding mechanisms to increase their ability to deliver on their ambitions. Some of the schemes identified to support local fundraising included:

  • Workplace Parking Levies (WPL), as a way to raise ringfenced money, contest car dominance, help tackle congestion, and improve bus competitiveness. For example, Nottingham raises £8.5m net annually for transport improvements via their WPL. They have used this for match funding to access further national funding such as the Ultra Low Emission Bus (ULEB) Scheme; and
  • Road user charging and parking measures, as a means of using surplus revenue while tackling car dominance. However, a caveat to this was suggested – that it is counter-productive to rely on parking revenue to fund transport measures when one of the overarching objectives for transport in most areas is to reduce car use. Therefore, funding avenues which do not need continued car use to sustain them need to be explored.

Low Carbon and Zero Emission Buses

Capitalising on improvements to vehicle technologies and converting bus fleets to low carbon and zero emission vehicles will be a major enabler for authorities at all levels to meet emissions and climate change targets related to transport.

Further to this, while low carbon and zero emission buses tend to require a significant capital outlay for the vehicles and infrastructure, once capital costs differentials are covered and operational efficiencies achieved, operating costs for these buses are notably lower than conventional diesel buses. In Europe, operating costs, including fuelling infrastructure, are expected to be lower for zero emission buses within the next four to five years, and capital costs of zero emission buses are expected to continue to drop over time, with battery prices predicted to reduce by 9-12 per cent annually until 2030. Total operating costs including externalities such as noise, air pollution, and GHG emissions costs to society, are already estimated to be lower for electric buses compared to diesel.

This lowered operational cost could help to sustain bus services in the future for a lower cost than if relying on conventionally fuelled fleets. This change is greatly needed, as operational costs and fares for users have risen more quickly for public transport users than for car users in recent years. Indeed, ‘fares are too high’ on public transport was given as the most common reason for car-dependency by respondents in a survey carried out by the RAC.

Commitments have been made by national Government to facilitate the rollout of 4,000 zero emission buses by 2025. To deliver this target, ~40 per cent of all new buses will need to be zero emission, from around 5 per cent in 2019. This scale of change nationally will need local delivery processes and infrastructure to support it and will rely on effective action from both operators and local authorities. The ability to assess and redesign bus networks – to cater for vehicle range limitations and allow for charging/refuelling regimes – and then implement supporting measures will be a key enabler in facilitating clean bus rollout. 

As well as green buses, behavioural change away from car use is essential. Interview responses highlighted that EV cars aren’t going to solve car related problems such as congestion, but will simply create a new set of challenges. 

Some notable barriers will also need to be overcome, as discussed in Section 4.

Barriers to the delivery of Local Authority public transport ambitions

Introduction

The study highlighted some of the key barriers for local authorities to deliver their ambitions, as set out in Section 2.

Funding

As well as being one of the key enablers for the delivery of local public transport ambitions, funding was one of the most commonly cited barriers in our interviews with council officers and councillors.

Reductions in funding mean that local authority spending on local transport is down by ~40 per cent over the last decade. Further pressure has been placed on local transport spending in recent years due to a long-term decline in bus patronage and the corresponding loss of commercial bus services which need to be supported, as well as by patterns of concessionary travel spending, as discussed below. The immediate and longer-term impacts of COVID-19 are having, and will continue to have, a negative impact on demand for public transport, e.g. due of an increase in home working.

Concessionary Travel

Earlier this year, a National Audit Office report highlighted that an increasing proportion of local transport spend is being used on concessionary travel reimbursement to operators when compared to spending on supporting bus services. The report noted that the duty to reimburse operators an eat into non-ringfenced funding which would otherwise be used on public transport improvements and to support local bus services. This message was echoed by council officers and councillors interviewed in this study.

Research by the LGA has concluded that the level of underfunding is around £700m a year.

By having less money to spend on supporting or delivering services, councils have less influence over where, when, and how bus services are delivered in their area.

Long-term trends in transport use 

Over the last decade there has been a drop in bus passenger journeys outside of London of 11.9 per cent, while in London there was a drop of just 1.4 per cent. Along with this decline in patronage, the volume of bus services miles delivered has also fallen outside of London, largely driven by a halving of local authority supported service miles.

Within this general trend of decline, there is considerable variation outside of London in terms of usage, with some areas in close proximity to each other seeing large differences in ridership and mode share. This may be due to different approaches taken to local transport delivery within these areas, or from varying operating contexts.

One particular issue which has worsened in recent decades is that of rural bus network decline, with ridership falling sharply. Reductions in funding for local public transport have led to many supported services being withdrawn, as have those services which were operated commercially but which were found to be unviable. Rural routes tend to be longer and have lower demand than urban areas, costing more to operate but collecting less in revenue. The loss of public transport services in rural areas can have a particularly negative impact – when compared to in urban areas – in relation to eroding access to jobs, education and training options, as well as to key services such as healthcare.

Potential Impacts of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the need, desire and ability to travel in England. The initial period of national lockdown saw major drops in travel across the board, with public transport most heavily affected. At some points, bus use outside of London dropped to 11 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels.

Messaging from national Government on the use of public transport and promotion of car as the ‘safe’ transport option having short-term impacts on travel choices now, but could also have longer term impacts, especially for those who have committed to some level of car use by purchasing vehicles to address short-term needs.

Research into the longer-term effects of COVID-19 suggests that:

  • UK employees are expecting a more flexible way of working once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, with most office-based workers looking to reduce the number of days they are in the office. Many are looking to work more from home and have more control over the times at which they work;
  • Even with a vaccine in place, most travellers expect to use public transport less than before. Many look to replace these trips with car use.

These changes will have a significant impact on the demand for and patterns of travel in England and, in turn, the viability of public transport services and how networks can be planned and operated. In most cases, the changes to travel patterns will make delivering an attractive conventional public transport network harder than before the COVID-19 crisis. 

Changing working patterns may see a new rise of de-urbanisation and greater localism in services and travel requirements. This may provide opportunities for stronger local services, but can also risk eroding or spreading out demand for public transport. This is traditionally a tough problem for bus services to address, as bus is a mode which is based on shared travel demand between points along a network.

Public transport operators are having to respond quickly to changing demand and, in many cases, this means cutting services for which there is no Government funding made available. In the face of diminished local authority transport budgets for supported services, it is likely that much of the bus network will be lost or face a reduced level of service in coming years.

Spending, Appraisal and National Funding

Interviews highlighted that money is often spent on big budget infrastructure and roads projects and isn’t always available for what is needed to deliver daily public transport operations or for spending in other areas which support car-free lifestyles, such as active travel.

It was suggested that this may be due to the scheme appraisal process being highly focused on economic benefit and missing real social and environmental benefits which can arise from effective provision of high-quality public transport services.

Almost all council officer interviewees noted that delivering change to bus networks, fleets, and operational models has become heavily reliant on national funding pots, which can:

  • Be restrictive in their conditions and focus on particular solutions which may not suit local challenges;
  • Come all at once when funding is announced and have a short turnaround (in the context of major transport scheme delivery); and
  • Be highly politicised and changeable, making long term strategy delivery difficult. 

Often, funding being concentrated through national funding streams means that there is pressure on local authorities to retrofit their ambitions to make these fit with national funding pot conditions and timescales. 

The need to prepare funding applications can cause difficulties for some local transport departments due to limited staff time or the lack of expertise to construct an effective case for change, and lack of funding to commission feasibility studies or provide match funding for the changes which are proposed.

Staff Resources and Expertise

The majority of local authorities which were engaged with highlighted the fact that they have lost staff over the last decade and this means that they do not have the time or expertise to deliver their ambitions. 

While some authorities continue to plan for the future, staffing pressures mean that many transport officers struggle to delivery statutory requirements, let alone have time to innovate or deliver major schemes. Indeed, one of the particular problem areas arising from a lack of staff resources was that of using new bus powers, as described as an enabler in Section 3.3 above. These take significant time and resource commitments which are not feasible for most authorities.

In terms of expertise, many authorities noted that they are constrained on their use of data by skills gaps within local authorities, i.e. even where data and modelling tools are available, staff may not have the expertise, or time, to use these. Funding pressures mean that they are not able to recruit or outsource appropriate resources to tackle this issue.

Delivering Effective Strategies and Plans

Council officers stated that it can be difficult to deliver long-term strategies due to some of the issues highlighted above, such as fluctuations in funding, reliance on national funding pots, and lack of staff resource and expertise. This issue can result in reactive public transport network management which does not tackle long term problems such as congestion.

Recent and proposed changes to the planning system, aimed at streamlining the development planning process, means that is will become harder for local authority planners to influence development and ensure that effective public transport is in place, as highlighted as an ambition in Section 2.3.

Switching to Low Carbon and Zero Emission Buses

Particularly large barriers are facing the delivery of low and zero carbon bus rollout ambitions, despite this being a major ambition for local authorities and being at the centre of policy at national level and at most local levels.

Some of the main barriers include that:

  • Bus operators are struggling as a result of recent changes to travel demand and revenue, and have been looking to make cost savings. This means that many have cancelled bus orders and are planning to use existing fleet vehicles for longer in order to reduce immediate fleet replacement costs. This has had an impact on bus manufacturers also and some companies are under significant threat of losses and closure. Loss of UK based manufacturing capabilities may limit the potential for clean vehicle rollout in the future. 
  • Zero Emission Buses (ZEB), e.g. electric or hydrogen powered vehicles, tend to have a significant capital outlay for the vehicles and infrastructure which, as noted above is difficult for operators to justify at present. 
  • Previous central government funding streams have been insufficient to drive widespread change or adequately support the bus operator and manufacturing industries. 
  • Current national bus funding sources, such as the Bus Service Operators Grants (BSOG), may be stifling ZEB uptake. Current BSOG funding favours efficient diesel buses over ZEBs, as operators can claim both Base BSOG support (currently £0.35/litre) and BSOG LCEB (currently £0.06 km), whereas electric buses, for example, can only claim the latter.

What needs to change?

The research has highlighted areas for the LGA and its members to take forward. This includes clearly articulating the challenges facing English local government in fulfilling its local transport responsibilities and wider ambitions.

This includes highlighting the mismatch between available funds and local authority ambitions. 

In relation to national funding, feedback suggested that future funding needs to concentrate on:

  • Providing longer term stability and predictability, allowing authorities and operators to plan their actions and deliver them in a controlled manner. This would allow better use of their scarce staffing and local funding resources;
  • Ensuring that funding is provided in a way that not only tackles capital funding elements but also ensures that the schemes delivered can continue into the future. Adequate local transport funding would go some way towards this;
  • Recognising the significant pressures on viability caused by COVID-19, and moving from an emergency funding approach (with major uncertainty around timescales and levels of funding) to a longer-term recovery plan;
  • Ensuring that funding opportunities can be accessed by all authorities, not just those with the spare time, expertise, and local funding to respond to calls effectively; and
  • Supporting bus service viability and the rollout of clean bus fleets. A long-term capital funding scheme could better allow for a planned approach to the replacement of bus fleets and the capture of operational cost saving efficiencies. A paper by LowCVP has suggested that increased funding for ZEBs through an enhanced BSOG LCEB incentive would be one of the most effective means of encouraging ZEB uptake. This would include moving to a model closer to that used in Scotland, which is tiered to reflect GHG savings and zero emissions capabilities of vehicles. 

Highlighting needs around staffing issues will be key. There is a clear need for enhanced local authority staffing in order to produce and deliver long-term transport strategies, make use of new bus powers, be able to effectively react to immediate challenges facing local transport, and deliver on wider ambitions and innovation. Supporting this is likely to need adequate funding to recruit and retain relevantly skilled individuals, or to buy-in specialist expertise, for example in areas such data analysis and management.

The LGA should also consider disseminating examples of good practice about making bus services more attractive and utilising fresh approaches, such as the latest innovations in DRT or optimising use of their internal transport fleets. 

This could also include sharing experiences between authorities on how to strike suitable partnerships between local authorities and operators, neighbouring/higher tier authorities, and other public sector agencies. This would be particularly relevant in relation to effectively managing and using data sources and tool, as well as making use of new bus powers available to authorities, such as statutory enhanced partnerships.