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About the National Bus Strategy

The National Bus Strategy for England describes the Government’s vision for bus services in England outside of London. The main aim of the strategy is to increase bus journeys, firstly by returning the overall number of journeys made by bus to pre-Covid levels and then to exceed it.

To achieve this, the National Bus Strategy plans to bring services across England closer to London standards, with more services, simpler and cheaper fares, more bus lanes and greener and more accessible buses. The Mayor of London is responsible for London’s buses, which are run by a subsidiary of Transport for London.

Bus services affect the priorities of two-thirds of Government departments, according to a report by the National Audit Office. This includes the Government’s 2050 net zero target and its Levelling-Up agenda. The National Bus Strategy helps achieve the Government’s net zero target by encouraging more people to travel by bus than drive and by converting diesel buses to zero emission alternatives.  Improvements in bus services also help deliver the Government’s Levelling-Up agenda, according to a report from KPMG by providing better connections between homes, jobs and economic centres”, which supports local economic growth.

 The National Bus Strategy set out the following reforms to help deliver these aims:

  • a greater role for local transport authorities in planning local bus services.
  • guidance for local transport authorities on the provision of socially and economically necessary services.
  • local Bus Service Improvement Plans – joint plans produced by local transport authorities and operators – setting out how each area will deliver the goals and expectations of the National Bus Strategy.
  • measures to tackle the negative impact congestion has on bus services, including bus priority measures and new powers and guidance for local transport authorities.
  • reforms to the Bus Service Operators Grant – a fuel subsidy paid to operators and local transport authorities.
  • measures to increase the uptake of zero emission buses.

Progress so far

The impact of the pandemic, especially on work and travel patterns, continues to affect progress against the main objectives of the National Bus Strategy. Bus journeys have not returned to pre-pandemic levelsCommuter journeys, for example, are still 25% below pre-Covid levelsResearch by Transport Focus, a consumer watchdog, shows many people are still concerned about the health risks of travelling by bus.

The sector remains reliant on Covid-19 support from central government to fill the gap between the shortfall in passengers and increasing costs on operators, such as rising fuel prices. In March 2022, the Government announced extra Covid-19 funding for the sector until October 2022.

In March 2022, the Transport Select Committee launched an inquiry to investigate the Government’s progress on the National Bus Strategy. The Government informed the Transport Committee that since the strategy was published:

In March 2022, the Government announced it was on track to deliver the Prime Minister’s pledge for 4000 zero emission buses. So far, the Government has provided funding for 2,000 zero emission buses across Great Britain. The Government is also consulting on plans to phase-out the sale of new non-zero emission buses from 2032 at the latest.

Key areas of debate on the National Bus Strategy

Do councils have enough control?

The Government argues that Enhanced Partnerships give local transport authorities a greater role in planning services, but also continue to value the entrepreneurial skills operators have and ensure they have a say in how services are run. The Department said these partnerships also provide a faster and cheaper way of delivering the most important interventions – such as bus priority measures – that will increase passenger numbers. However, for others, these partnerships do not give local transport authorities enough control. The Centre for Cities’ report in June 2021 argued that only franchising can provide metro mayors with meaningful control over local services.

Is there enough money?

Of the 79 local transport authorities, 34 will receive central government funding to help deliver their local Bus Service Improvement Plans. This is because the total amount needed to deliver these plans in full greatly exceeded the funding available. Analysis by the Confederation of Passenger Transport suggested over £10 billion would be needed to fully deliver these plans. The Campaign for Better Transport’s view is that “improving buses in a minority of places does not live up to the promise of a National Bus Strategy.”

History of bus services and reforms

Long-term decline in bus passengers

People have been taking fewer bus journeys across most of England since the 1950s. Much of the decline occurred before the bus sector outside of London was deregulated in 1986, as shown by official data on local bus journeys.

The National Audit Office in October 2020 reported that the average numbers of bus journeys per person per year fell in most local authorities (70 out of 88) from 2010/11 to 2018/19.  A few areas managed to increase the number of local bus journeys. The most notable example is London. The National Audit Office reported that journeys in London increased by over 75% from 1.3 billion in 2000/01 to a high of 2.4 billion in 2013/14.

Bus reforms

In the mid-1980s, the then Conservative Government deregulated the bus market. The Transport Act 1985 enabled private operators to compete directly for passengers. The then Conservative Government anticipated that competition would incentivise operators to keep costs down, lower fares and provide more services that customers want.  The 1985 Act also removed the duties on local authorities to coordinate local bus services. Where the market failed to provide services, local transport authorities could choose to subsidise them. The then Transport Select Committee’s report on bus services outside London in May 2019 concluded that “deregulation has, at best, done little more than slow the decline in bus use.”

Since deregulation, successive governments have introduced reforms giving local authorities options to exert more influence and control over local bus services.  The Bus Services Act 2017, for example, introduced new models of partnership working and powers for local transport authorities to franchise services, although only metro mayors and Cornwall, via its devolution deal, can do so without the Secretary of State’s permission. However, before the National Bus Strategy the uptake of these powers was limited and made little difference in the context of the wider funding pressures on local authorities, according to the National Audit Office’s 2020 report.

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