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Recent NAO reports probe buses and broadband

27 October 2020: The National Audit Office highlights poor data as a key issue hindering the rollout of broadband and in improving local public transport.

The 2010 target set by the Government to widen broadband access across the UK has to a large extent been achieved, with the majority of households and businesses now able to access the broadband network. Unfortunately, its aim to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe has not been achieved, with only limited rollout of full-fibre broadband and many rural areas still not connected. There has also been a series of shifting targets as it has become clear that much higher speeds and more comprehensive coverage are critical to economic success. 

The NAO questions the realism of the new target of 2025 that has been set for achieving nationwide connectivity in light of changing objectives. The requirement for speed is important, particularly as businesses move online and more people work from home, but also attention must be given to those in need. Suppliers have been encouraged to prioritise easy-to-reach premises and it is not clear how this fits with minimising the rural divide and achieving a levelling up outcome, something that the NAO will keep under scrutiny.

The lack of good data is highlighted in the report, for example there is no one map or database of current and planned broadband installations. More than 20 suppliers are building new infrastructure, many of whom are not required to submit data coverage to government. A rather worrying position to be in that we don’t know where all these connections are!

Turning to buses, the NAO reports that the Government spent £512m on supporting bus services outside London in 2018/19 and that it proposes to spend £5bn over the next five years. A reliable and affordable bus service contributes to achieving policy objectives of two-thirds of government departments, from reducing health inequalities through to access to justice. The aim to increase bus use and stop the ongoing decline since the 1950s has not been achieved.

Although bus use in London has significantly increased in recent years before the pandemic, outside the capital it had decreased by almost 10% since 2010/2011. The decline in bus routes and bus travel disproportionately impacted supported routes, which are important for more rural or disadvantaged users. 

Where local authorities have invested in long term local support for bus services and prioritised tackling congestion the evidence shows that this can lead to an increase in the number of passenger journeys being taken. The NAO suggests that subsidies given to local authorities to keep certain routes financially viable need to continue but require reform so that they provide greater incentive for improvement. 

Surprisingly local authorities do not always access the capital funding available from central government, which can provide positive benefit-cost ratios, ranging from £1.80 to more than £5.10 on average. This lack of access to capital funding may be because local authorities with potentially viable projects lack the capability or revenue funding to bid. 

The NAO report highlights that even though local authorities submit data on bus use to central government this data is not collated resulting in a lack of monitoring on how interventions impact sustainability across the bus system. Yet another missed opportunity to use existing data.

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “The NAO reports on broadband and buses both highlight the urgent need for government to publish the National Infrastructure Strategy to provide the impetus needed to deliver better digital and physical connectivity, with better use of data an important component in transforming provision.

The NAO is quite right to focus on the importance of learning the lessons of what has not worked to date. The Future Programme to deliver nationwide gigabit coverage by 2025 will be absolutely critical to economic prosperity, while access to good local public transport remains essential to levelling up opportunities, particularly in rural and deprived communities.”

NAO report: Improving Broadband

NAO report: Improving local bus services in England