The Government has extended its financial support to bus services in England. There is a further £200m to support the single bus fare cap at £2 until the end of October and then at £2.50 for the following year or so. A further £300m has been made available to local authorities and bus operators to help maintain services through 2023 and 2024.
Before this latest announcement, the COVID Bus Recovery Grant was due to cease at the end of June. Without the extension, there would have been reductions to services and increases in fares. This further extension will be welcomed by all bus operators, local transport authorities, and, of course, the bus-using public. However, operators are still warning of service reductions, which will no doubt put further pressure on local authorities’ budgets for tendered bus services. Come November, we should expect what has in effect become a £2 flat fare to be a £2.50 flat fare.
Earlier this year, Steer prepared a report for the Urban Transport Group that argued that even before the pandemic, the approach to financially supporting local bus services was broken. We put forward a number of options for reform. What we also said was that time was needed to develop the options, consult on the way forward, and then implement change. As well as avoiding a cliff edge at the end of June, what the Government’s announcement has done is buy itself 18 months thinking time. Let’s hope we will now see the Bus Service Operator Grant reform package promised in Bus Back Better, the national bus strategy for England, come forward. And perhaps a more radical package too.