“The transport equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein question”: why Britain needs to reform bus funding

Look! A bus! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Putting public money into the bus is one of the biggest bargains in transport policy, yet it has been one of the biggest losers from recent trends in transport spending. This makes little sense given the Urban Transport Group’s latest analysis, which shows that supporting bus services aligns with the policy goals of 12 of the 25 different departments in Whitehall.

And it’s not just the departments you might expect. Buses tick the boxes for the Department of International Trade because the British bus manufacturing industry has an impressive export track record. The bus meets the goals of the Department of Work & Pensions, such as providing access to opportunity. It helps out DEFRA because buses support rural economies.

And the bus supports the aims of the Department of Health and Social Care as buses promote physical activity, give older and disabled people independence and because they could play a greater role in a more efficient approach to non-emergency patient transport. In short, every single pound that supports bus services cuts congestion, while contributing to numerous wider social, economic and environment goals. Not many other modes of transport could tot up all these benefits.

But without public support for bus services, labour markets will shrink and more people will be unable to participate in the economy; skills and apprenticeships will be hit because of reduced access to further education. High street regeneration will be damaged through reduced access to town centres, and there will be increased pressure on congested road networks as bus users migrate to the car. And there’ll be public health impacts from more isolation and loneliness, and less physical activity. The young will be hit hardest. A divided society will become more divided.


Despite these risks, that hasn’t stopped all six sources of bus funding being cut back in recent years. This in turn, has given an unhelpful shove in the back to a mode which was already tumbling down the slope, plummeting towards the cliff edge in too many parts of the country.

Meanwhile, Highways England has more money that it can spend to expand inter-urban road capacity which will continue to pump more traffic into cities that don’t want it, generate more car-dependent sprawl, worsen air quality, increase carbon emissions and replace big traffic jams with even bigger traffic jams. An extra £500m a year for buses, for example, would be less than 2 per cent of the annual revenue to Treasury from fuel duty.

It’s not just the total amount of bus funding that is the problem however. Making things worse is the convoluted and uncoordinated way in which buses are funded by different Departments, with no sense across government of the cumulative impact of their different decisions.

So, arguably as important for bus funding as the Department for Transport, is the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government (which indirectly funds concessionary travel, as well as those services which operators won’t provide commercially). And then, in a separate box altogether, is over £1bn of Department for Education funding for schools transport.

All of which makes bus funding the transport equivalent of the Schleswig Holstein question – about which Palmerston said only three people understand it, one of whom was dead, the other mad and the other had forgotten all about it. Put bluntly, it’s a bad way to fund what is a very good thing.

The Treasury’s Spending Review is expected to run the rule over the Department for Transport’s main source of bus funding, the Bus Service Operators Grant, which provides a rebate on fuel duty. The mood music in Whitehall about protecting bus funding is far better than it was last time it was scrutinised in a Spending Review. But with the bus in sharp decline and punch drunk from previous funding cuts, now is the time for something more ambitious than tinkering and holding the line.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.