Government must extend support for bus services or risk locking in damage from Covid, regional leaders warn

Seven of England’s metro mayors have warned that bus services are at a ‘critical tipping-point’

Regional leaders from across England have publicly criticised the government over its failure so far to extend support to bus services, leaving them at a “critical tipping-point”.

All seven of Labour’s metro mayors published a letter yesterday (14 February) expressing “profound concern” that the government’s failure to extend the Covid Bus Recovery Grant “is on the verge of causing serious harm across the country”.

Will the government renew support for bus services in England?

Regional leaders including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham have publicly called for the government to extend the Bus Recovery Grant, which is due to end on 5 April.

But the government has been criticised as having “dithered on extending Covid support for months” with the letter noting that bus operators need “weeks to plan ahead”.

The Bus Recovery Grant was introduced by the Department of Transport (DfT) last year, providing operators and local authorities with £255.5 million

The statement was signed by Dan Jarvis (South Yorkshire), Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire), Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Jamie Driscoll (North of Tyne), Dan Norris (West of England), Nik Johnson (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough), and Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region).

The Local Government Association (LGA) and other groups have warned that without continued support many bus routes will cease to be viable, as demand is yet to fully recover from the pandemic.

The LGA’s transport spokesperson, Cllr David Renard, called on the government to commit to extending the support, or risk a “devastating impact” on those who rely on the services.

He said: “Government funding has helped keep buses on the road, allowing operators to close the gap between the costs of providing local public transport and the reduced revenues from much lower numbers of passengers than normal.

“Passenger numbers have not returned to those seen before the pandemic and without continued support, it is clear that some routes will no longer be viable and will have to be reduced.

“This will have a devastating impact on people who rely on these services to get to work, visit family and access vital services, including doctors and affordable food shopping.

While the shift toward homeworking is likely a significant contributing factor to the continued reduced demand, the metro mayors have warned that failure to give the sector a full chance at recovery risks locking in the economic damage caused by Covid.

The DfT says it has provided “unprecedented support” of over £1.7bn to keep services running during the pandemic.

A spokesperson said: “We have provided unprecedented support for local transport during the pandemic, with over £1.7 billion made available to keep bus services running across the country.

“We continue to listen to the sector and work closely with operators and local transport authorities to support network planning after April, ensuring all possible steps are taken to protect services.”

‘A critical tipping-point’

You can read the metro mayors’ joint statement in full below:

“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.”