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COVID-relief funding has been extended again — but does not offer a road to sustainable, long-term service

  •   3 min read

With another six-month extension, COVID-relief funding has forestalled bus service cuts — for now. But a more sustainable solution for funding and network design is required to deliver affordable services long-term.

Jonathan Hampson

Head of UK Partnerships, Via

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Local authorities bracing for service cuts with the end of the Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) Extension program in October can breathe a sigh of relief: COVID-relief funding for buses has been extended, again, for a further six-month period. But the relief, like the funding, is short-lived. We must take this time to ask, and answer, a very important question: what must change between now and March 2023 to develop a more sustainable, long-term solution for transport funding in the UK?

Back in February, bus operators warned that 30% of routes faced cuts if the Bus Recovery Grant expired as expected in April 2022. The government introduced the BRG Extension program, extending the cut-off point for funding to October 2022. Then, in August, mayors warned that 50% of routes would be affected “in some form.” Shortly thereafter, the BRG Extension was itself extended to March 2023, a further six-month period. 

Of course we welcome the news that the transport networks passengers rely on for jobs, education, healthcare, and essential services will continue to be protected, at least for now. But we are alarmed by the shortsightedness evidenced in what is now a clear cycle: alarm over impending cuts, followed by short-term relief, followed again by alarm as that relief inevitably approaches expiration. It should be clear by now that the demand patterns we currently see are a permanent fixture rather than something that, given another six months, will return to their pre-pandemic state. 

To break out of this cycle of alarm, we must push for two things:

  • The pursuit of creative transport solutions to replace bus routes that are no longer financially sustainable.
  • A more permanent funding structure designed to support patronage and trip-patterns as they are, rather than as they were.

At Via, we have some experience with the former: over the past three years, we have seen a transformation in the role of DRT in this country. Via alone currently has 17 distinct services and over 30 service zones active, both in the rural environments historically amenable to DRT and in more urban areas as a supplement to or replacement of traditional fixed-route bus service. While some of these services were launched with specific funding packages (like the Rural Mobility Fund), we have also demonstrated that additional funding is not necessarily required; indeed, some of our partners have maintained or grown transport coverage while reducing their existing bus spend. In Milton Keynes, for example, our DRT service managed to reduce the subsidy required per journey by 43%. 

Though useful, a mechanic for repurposing existing spend can only work to an extent — and certainly won’t fix the root of the problem, which is that bus funding has been consistently falling in almost all areas of the country for over a decade. While the National Bus Strategy has created some welcome focus and investment in bus service, it is increasingly clear that it will not provide the transformation required. 

After authorities poured months into their Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs), fewer than 40% received any funding at all. Then, the government asked authorities to complete laborious network reviews. We are increasingly asking authorities to spend time talking about what they might do, without giving them the funds to actually do anything but, with the latest BRG extension, maintain the status quo.

Instead of hoping that patronage will return, or hoping for yet another extension in March 2023, let’s take these six months as an opportunity to effect real change starting with establishing a new, long term, funding model for public transport. The benefits of doing so should be abundantly clear: widespread, reliable transport ensures equitable access to jobs, healthcare, education, and social inclusion. A 2020 report by KPMG found that for every £1 invested in public transport, £4.48 could be generated in wider social, economic, and environmental benefits. 

Instead of endless “competitions” for funding, let’s set funding aside for each local authority and restore trust in government support for buses. Let’s move to reallocate funds from car-focused infrastructure to public transport operations. We know we need to remake public transport to meet our contemporary moment; as we do, let’s be sure to remake funding structures capable of supporting these new networks.

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