Seven Metro Mayors across England have warned that the government’s failure to extend emergency Covid support for bus services is on the verge of causing lasting damage.
In a statement regional leaders sounded the alarm about what they called “strategic short-sightedness of the worst kind” – with bus companies sharing the blame for looming cuts and fare rises that will weaken economic recovery, undermine climate change targets and hit hard-up passengers in the pocket.
The government is set to axe emergency support for bus services at the end of March, and operators have already pencilled in major cuts and fare rises. The crisis is made worse by the government’s failure to honour promises of £3bn in long term investment in better buses, with only £1.2bn left after much of the money was double-counted or diverted to pay for Covid subsidies.
West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris said:
“Plans to boost buses will be left in tatters unless the government wake up to the reality on the ground. Passenger numbers are not back to pre-covid levels. If any minister disputes this then they are welcome to come and travel around the beautiful West of England with me – I guarantee there will be spare seats on the bus. More government support is needed at this critical time. We need to build confidence on the buses making it the obvious choice for local residents trying to get from A to B. It’s also vital if we are to achieve our ambitious net zero targets. The focus must be encouraging people out of cars, not forcing them into them – and that means providing a consistent, affordable and reliable service. It’s obvious – but not, apparently, to this government.“
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin added: “Our bus services are facing a funding cliff edge next month which government are not responding to quickly enough. Operators are cutting back on routes in areas that need help to level up, whilst pushing up fares which will not help boost passenger numbers. We want to transform our services, and deliver the London style buses our communities deserve. But unless government steps in, we’ll have to spend money to simply prop up the current system rather than deliver on our ambitions.”
The Metro Mayors called for government to continue emergency support for bus services and make good on pledges for longer-term investment – and to create a thought-through plan with operators and local leaders “that allows for managed changes to the system, protects its health for the long term, and avoids fuelling a vicious cycle of decline.”
“This is a moment of danger for our buses,” South Yorkshire Metro Mayor Dan Jarvis said. “We need the government and operators to act for to the long-term good of the system – or we’ll all be paying the price.”
The following statement was signed by Metro Mayors Dan Norris (West of England), Dan Jarvis (South Yorkshire), Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire), Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Jamie Driscoll (North of Tyne),, Nik Johnson (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough), and Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region).
We have come together as Metro Mayors to express our profound concern that the government’s failure to extend support for bus services is on the verge of causing serious harm across the country. We ask the government to act urgently to avoid needlessly locking in the damage caused by Covid, weakening our local economies, and undermining the effort to transform and decarbonise our transport.
Our buses are under exceptional pressure, with passenger numbers outside London still around 25% down on pre-Covid levels. But operators are rushing to make cuts and raise fares even before the prospects for recovery are clear. That is unacceptable. We need them to give something back after the support they have had during lockdown, and be genuine partners for the long-term health of the service.
But the government shares responsibility as well. The Treasury and DfT have dithered on extending Covid support for months, and now seem oblivious to the fact that operators need weeks to plan ahead. We are at a critical tipping-point: unless they act at once, the damage will be done.
The failure to extend support appears to be based on wishful thinking that the impact of Covid is in the past – even as infection rates remain high and many people are still working from home. We should be maximising the chances of a full recovery in passenger numbers. Instead the government is standing by as fares are sharply increased and services are slashed – virtually guaranteeing that full recovery will not happen, and locking in damage from Covid that might otherwise have been temporary.
If we want to realise the potential of our buses, this is strategic short-sightedness of the worst kind. It is wildly incompatible with the National Bus Strategy’s stated aim to get patronage ‘back to its pre-COVID 19 level, and then to exceed it’ – an aim we fully support.
The damage is made much worse by the government’s reneging on wider promises of transformative investment, with a promised £3bn pot now reduced to £1.2bn by double counting and diversion to emergency Covid support, and many areas likely to lose out on funding entirely as a result. Once again, the government is talking the language of levelling up, but utterly failing to match words with deeds.
We ask the government to work together with us, as well as with other local leaders and operators, to develop a thought-through plan that allows for managed changes to the system, protects its health for the long term, and avoids fuelling a vicious cycle of decline. That must include not just continuing emergency support for bus services but making good on pledges for longer-term investment.
We have already shown our willingness to play our part. But we are at a crossroads – and if the government fails to respond to the looming crisis, it will make a mockery of the goal they claim to share with us – and our economies and our communities will pay the price.